Category Archives: 2016

Music and Ecology International Multidisciplinary Symposium 2015: A Summary

by Andreja Vrekalić (Croatia)

Music and Ecology International Multidisciplinary Symposium 2015

28 – 29 August 2015, Ljubljana, Slovenia

City Museum Ljubljana


A considerable effort of five associations – (1) the Secretariat of the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM), located in Ljubljana since 2011; (2) the Imago Sloveniae, one of the national agencies organizing music and performing arts events around Slovenia; (3) the Department of Musicology of the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana; (4) the Cultural and Ethnomusicological Society Folk Slovenia; and (5) the Institute of Ethnomusicology of the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts – made the old city center of Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, a hub of ethnomusicological encounters. Initiated in August 2011, these events have been a part of the festival Nights in Old Ljubljana Town and consist of scientific symposia enriching the festivals through their thematic focus. The symposia reflect the themes of concerts and workshops presented during festivals as well as contribute to ethnomusicological topics of global significance. Since the beginning of collaboration of the above-mentioned institutions, the symposium themes were as follows: Whither Accordion? in 2012, Music and Protest in 2013, and Music and Otherness in 2014. The 2015 symposium theme of Music and Ecology, while continuing this thematic tradition, initiated a discussion about the potential of intertwined/ecological perspectives in (ethno)musicology in this part of Europe (or continued a systematic and scientific consideration of music’s relationship with ecology since its inception and surpassed Merriam’s tripartite unit) (cf. Merriam 1964). Its ecological and holistic attributes reflected beyond symposium presentations, for instance in the City Museum Ljubljana or boat trip along the Ljubljanica River after the first day of symposium.

During a two-day symposium held in the City Museum of Ljubljana, a group of 17 scholars offered a plethora of perspectives, reflections, and ideas on music and ecology and on the role of the (applied) (ethno)musicologist as a scholar and social activist (depending on the understanding of the concepts and contexts of ecology). The first day started with an introductory lecture by Svanibor Pettan (Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, secretary general of the ICTM) entitled Singing Fish and Other Sound Phenomena of Batticaloa: What Soundscapes Tell Us about Culture? Pettan provokingly used Steven Feld’s thesis on acoustemologies as an idea of experiencing culture being exposed to sonic phenomena. He presented his personal experience of soundscapes of Batticaloa, a city in Sri Lanka where he conducted fieldwork in August 2015. Reflecting on the coherence of the terms of music and ecology and seeking a direct link to their more concrete use, the keynote speaker Huib Schippers (Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia) discussed Applied Ethnomusicology and Intangible Cultural Heritage: Developing the Concept of “Ecosystem of Music” to Focus Sustainability Initiatives. He presented core ideas of an international research project Sustainable Futures and emphasized the significant role of researchers in raising global awareness needed to preserve and safeguard music cultures and to find the interconnections between music ecosystems and biological entities. Speaking from the perspective of historical musicologist, Ljubica Ilić (Academy of Arts, University of Novi Sad, Serbia) in her paper The Soundscapes of (Dis)Order questioned contemporary musicological approach to the understanding of nature and culture. She listened to, analyzed, and studied the ambivalence (ordered and/or disordered) of soundscapes of Munich and Istanbul. In Fields of Green: Addressing Sustainability and Climate Change Through Music Festival Communities, Matt Brennan (University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom) introduced a new research project to reveal (im)possible environmental/sustainable/cultural actions among artists, audiences, and organizers of Scottish music festivals (doers, knowers, and makers, according to the typology by Lundberg, Malm, and Ronström 2003). Investigating the attributes of “environmental” and “ecological” in the works of several composers and sound artists, Jono Gilmurray (University of the Arts London, London, United Kingdom) presented an audiovisual report, Ecoacoustics: Ecology and Environmentalism in Contemporary Music and Sound Art. He critically reviewed the purposefulness of ecoacoustic music and sound art as a mediating tool for expressing global environmental changes.

In contrast to these presentations, Nataša Jazbinšek Seršen (the Head of the Department for Environmental Protection of Municipality of Ljubljana and Head of the European Green Capital 2016), talked about raising environmental awareness in Ljubljana. She discussed changes which have occurred within the city infrastructure and resulted in Ljubljana winning the European Green Capital Award for 2016. She also focused on projects which should be undertaken to make Ljubljana even greener. The only panel session at the symposium was presented by six scholars currently engaged in a research project City Sonic Ecology: Urban Soundscapes of Bern, Ljubljana, and Belgrade. Mojca Kovačić (Institute of Ethnomusciology of the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana, Slovenia) focused on Conflicting Religioscapes in Ljubljana. She researched the Islamic community and its religious and cultural independence as well as its attempts to build a mosque in Ljubljana. Srđan Atanasovski (Institute of Musicology of Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Belgrade, Serbia) discussed Belgrade Sonic Policescape and the Act of Listening: Between Entrainment and Resilience. His presentation focused on three levels of dichotomies – private and public, activity and passivity, and democracy and obedience – to highlight issues of using external stimulus to control internal and personal soundscapes. Further, Starogradska muzika in Skadarlija as Nostalgic Sound Environment by Marija Dumnić (Institute of Musicology of Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Belgrade, Serbia) and Reculturization Projects in Savamala by Ivana Medić (Institute of Musicology of Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Belgrade, Serbia) presented two types of nostalgia. Dumnić’s nostalgia, focused on Skadarska Street in Belgrade, has its continuum; exists at the certain point; and is interwoven with performances of “old urban music” which present unspoiled, old and authentic Belgrade as a powerful tool to attract tourists. Medić’s paper connected nostalgia to religious/ethnic identity, by presenting the case of tourists and Saudi Arabian investors attracted to Savamala quarter of Belgrade. This type of nostalgia arises from the fear of loss – i.e., losing one’s culture, music, and traditions. The topics of urban development and identity representation emerged also in a paper by Britta Sweers (Center for Cultural Studies, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland) entitled The Sonic Representation of Traditional and Modern Identity in the Public Urban Context of Bern, Switzerland. She interpreted soundscapes of Bern as representing identity shifts between traditional and modern. Ana Hofman (Institute of Culture and Memory Studies of the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana, Slovenia) introduced the concept of Music Activism in a Neoliberal City and the use of soundscapes appropriated by a political identity seeking to become socially and culturally visible. The second keynote speaker Kjell Skyllstad (Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand) concluded the first day of the symposium with Music and Ecology: A Question of Survival. He traced the beginnings of ethnomusicological thoughts on music and ecology to a symposium held in 2010 in Hanoi, Vietnam, a collaboration between two ICTM study groups (music and minorities and applied ethnomusicology); this symposium served as a great example whereby scientific and artistic agencies have brought sociocultural improvements to community ecosystems of Southeast Asia.

Amra Toska (Academy of Music, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina) opened the second day of the symposium with Traditional Music and Its Environment: Examples from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her paper explored relationship between traditional music genres of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the influence of space (natural, architectural, rural, and urban) on the act of performance and the structure of music performed within a particular space. The question of sustainability and viability of musical culture of the indigenous Tao from Taiwan in the context of policies of penetration was the main concern of the paper Social Inclusion Through Music Making: Theories in Practice in the Case of the Tao, an Indigenous Ethnic Group in Taiwan by Wei-Ya Lin (University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, Austria). By accentuating relationships (similarities and differences) between human and non-human environments, Bernd Brabec de Mori (Institute of Ethnomusicology, University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, Austria) sought to identify the sources of the origin of music through researching indigenous ontologies. His paper was entitled Indigenous Animic and Analogic Conceptions of Sonic Human-Environment Interaction. The final keynote address, Linnaeus, Zoomusicology, Ecomusicology, and the Quest for Meaningful Categories, was given by Marcello Sorce Keller (independent scholar from Lugano, Switzerland). Keller was as thought-provoking as Pettan in problematizing ethnomusicological perspectives and definitions on music. He pointed out that abandoning anthropocentric perspectives results in introducing the new field of zoomusicology, bringing a new twist to Blacking’s idea of “how musical is man.”

The collaborative efforts of the program and organizational committee – consisting of Svanibor Pettan (chair), Jerneja Jamnikar, Janoš Kern, Teja Klobčar, Mojca Kovačić, and Carlos Yoder – successfully attracted eminent scientists and scholars whose open-mindedness, multidisciplinarity and eagerness will certainly contribute to the growth of research in ecomusicology and the expansion of the field of (ethno)musicology.





Lundberg, Dan, Krister Malm, and Owe Ronström. 2003. Music, Media, and Multiculture. Stockholm: The Centre for Swedish Folk Music and Jazz Research.


Merriam, Alan Parkhurst. 1964. The Anthropology of Music. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Experiencing Environmental Crises Through Music

by Sini Mononen (University of Turku, Finland)

Finnish musicologist Juha Torvinen is working on a personal research project entitled Music, Nature, and Environmental Crises: A Northern Perspective on Ecocritical Trends in Contemporary Music. The project is funded by the Academy of Finland. His project is the first in Finland to have significant funding for a study in the field of ecomusicology. Being a five-year (2014–2019) full-time research project, it is unique in the whole ecomusicological world, too. We discussed the main themes of the project with Torvinen.


SM: In your current research project you have studied environmental and ecocritical themes in contemporary classical and popular music. How do you think music engages ecocritical issues today?

JT: Well, music can deal with ecocritical themes in many ways, and these ways have already been studied in depth by the pioneering figures of contemporary ecomusicology such as Aaron S. Allen, Mark Pedelty, Denise von Glahn, Kevin Dawe and many others. The most obvious way is that a piece of music has a more or less clear “message” that it aims at changing our views through specific title, lyrics, motto, program or other explicit link to ecocritical subject matters. And there are obviously lots of artists whose whole oeuvre is based on an ecocritical ethos. Think about, for example, works of John Luther Adams, the dark ambient of New Risen Throne, or the black metal of Wolves in a Throne Room. The recording No Holier Temple of the Finnish progressive folk band Hexvessel could even be considered an ecocritical Gesamtkunstwerk.

However, I think that consciously and intentionally ecocritical forms of music and music making are, perhaps surprisingly, only a minor and not necessarily the most important part of contemporary eco-sensitive musical repertoire. We have witnessed a wide and heightened musical interest in nature and environment in recent decades. In Nordic contemporary music, for example, one can discern various approaches to the topic of environment ranging from Romantic nature mysticism and topophilic musical treatises of local environments to themes of urban environment, celestial bodies, and musical depictions of the elements of water, snow, and ice.

We are living in the age of environmental crises. This means that environmental concerns are fundamental for the experiences of our time. This is why environmental concerns also change our ways of hearing, listening, and sensing the world around us. And this is why we are able and entitled to hear ecocritical “messages” even in music where such messages are not obviously evident. Indeed, one of the main tasks of ecomusicology is, in my opinion, to open our ears to ecocritical listening, to show that it is not only music making itself but it is also our ears that are molded by environmental concerns whether we are aware of this or not. This emphasis on context is where ecomusicology mates with the main principles of cultural musicology.


SM: One of the defining themes in your project is the North. How do you understand the North in this ecomusicological context? Is it aesthetics, such as the dark sound and northern mythology in the music of one of your case studies Swedish progressive metal band Opeth, or is it apocalyptic scenes such as oil drilling in Arctic?

JT: Focusing on northerly music in my project has at least two main reasons. The one is quite practical: one cannot study everything, one has to delimit one’s objectives, and I will concentrate on northerly music because it is closest to me both musically and nature-wise (I’m a Finn born near the Polar Circle).

The other reason for focusing on northerly music is that northern music has a special potential for providing inspiration for global environmental thinking. This is because northern cultural forms are often closely connected to the still relatively unpolluted and uninhabited northern nature. Think about, for example, Icelandic artists Sigur Rós and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Sámi rappers, or various nature myths in Nordic metal that you mentioned.

Norwegian architect Christian Norberg-Schulz (1996) wrote on Nordic architecture and how it reflects northern lighting and our experience on the northerly environment. Life in north is characterized with extreme light conditions, pitch-dark winter and midnight sun. Depictions of light are a very typical theme also in northern ecocritical music. For example Finnish composer Kalevi Aho’s Eight Seasons (2011) is a concerto for theremin & chamber orchestra dealing with delicate characters of eight seasons of Sámi tradition. Climate change is threatening the seasons, diminishing them into fewer and leaving the habitants of the Lapland in the mercy of darkness and light. For instance, snow has an important role in starting the sixth season, the threshold of winter. Snow softens the hard darkness as it reflects the faintest light in the landscape. The theremin has a significant and interesting role in the concerto, as the instrument has a cultural history distinct from the conventional chamber music tradition. It is standing alone before the chamber orchestra, trying to defend its history, subjectivity and tradition.

Typical for the overall sound of the northern music is avoidance of (musical) subjects in favor of ambient fields of sound, blurring of musical foreground and background, and depictions of desolate landscape. But these are only typical, not essential traits of northerly music. Similar traits can be found in any music and, conversely, not all northerly music includes these features. For example, Alaskan John Luther Adams composed a dystopian dream in Become Ocean. The whole theme of the piece is an apocalyptical future, where humanity is sliding back towards the ocean. We came from the ocean, and now the ocean is pulling us back. John Luther Adams is a good example of a composer composing subjectless voids. The similar feel is present in the oeuvre of New Risen Throne and Wolves in a Throne Room. The north and environment give a slow-paced feel to their music. There aren’t many musical subjects or events. North appears as a huge space, movement of a light, and togetherness with the environment as the borders of the subjects disappear and everything dissolves into same big whole.

But I’d like to repeat myself: not all northerly music includes these features. Still I think that above-mentioned features are more common in northerly music than in music in general. Our immediate natural and cultural surroundings mould and affect our ways of thinking, acting and experiencing things. Northern nature affects the nature of music of northern countries. How could it even avoid of doing this?


SM: It seems to me that discussing North in particular is an attempt to turn from global to local: is this a conscious ecocritical choice?

JT: I agree. How can you really, and I mean really deeply, care about anything with which you haven’t had any physical immediate contact? The extreme nationalist movements of the 20th century have somewhat poisoned the idea of locality and topophilia. Gradually we are getting rid of such labels – and, ironically, much because of environmental crises, because they are often disturbances in local physical contacts with the world. However, you must not make the mistake of thinking that your locality is the best (not to mention only) way to think, act and experience. For example highlighting the particularities of northern environment may help others to see the uniqueness of their different environments.

Furthermore, there is a more philosophical reason for my northern focus. Peter Davidson (2005), a specialist in the culture of the northern regions, has pointed out that in Western literary history the north has long acted as a metaphor for something that is, for better or worse, beyond the knowable world. Also music is often seen as something beyond knowable or, at least, controllable. Can the homologous use of music and north as metaphors for something beyond the here-and-now find a new topicality in current socio-cultural negotiation environmental problems? Global warming is moving the climatic North more and more to the North. Is this a symptom for our inability to face the fundamental questions?


SM: A significant part of your previous work is studying this side of music through Heideggerian phenomenology. Heidegger is still very up-to-date, although also widely criticized especially in post-phenomenology such as object-oriented-ontology. Do you find Heideggerian philosophy still relevant in ecocritisism and ecomusicology?

JT: My doctoral thesis back in 2007 discussed the forms of affectivity in musical experience as temporary and transitory “attunements” of the primordial and pre-subjective existential-ontological anxiety (Angst).

Indeed, Heideggerian thought has much to offer also for environmentally oriented music research, just like it has had much to offer for ecocritical and ecophilosophical thought in general. Heidegger’s analysis of human existence as being-in-the-world (that we are what we are only in and through our interaction with the world), his anti-humanist critique of Western metaphysics of subjectivity, as well as his thoughts on technology can be considered important precursors for today’s critiques of anthropocentrism in all forms of environmental research.

Heidegger’s critique of technology (for example in the essay The Question Concerning Technology) is aimed at technological understanding of Being that manifests not only as tools, machines etc. but primarily as our general need to control and organize the world and nature according to our standards, as seeing everything (including humans themselves) as standing reserve for fulfilling contingent human needs. In this context even science is always technological because its raison d’être is to make our ability to disclose the world (tekhne) as a rational system (logos). Heidegger’s main concern was that technological understanding of Being can become the governing and only view to reality. It seems that this is exactly and unfortunately what has happened. Various environmental crises tell us that our needs do not meet the benefit of the rest of the reality. It is interesting for a musicologist that in order to avoid the negative aspects of technological understanding of Being, Heidegger informs us to listen to Being. By its essence the ear is less discriminating (i.e. less technological?) than the eye.

Heideggerian philosophy is also among the main backdrops for Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature and, consequently, today’s ecophenomenology including the writings of Ted Toadvine (2009), Gernot Böhme (2001), Edward S. Casey (1997) and many others. Ecophenomenology – Heideggerian or not – is an important methodology for my research, because I am first and foremost interested in experiences of nature and environment (especially ones that are devoid of subject-object divide) as conveyed and negotiated through music and musical practices in our age of environmental crises.


SM: You have told me that you prefer term nature to ecology or environment. I can remember opposite choice in ecocritical discourse that emphasizes the loss of nature and thus turn to discussing environment. Why did you choose to turn the other way?

JT: I am relying on Heideggerian tradition here, too. Heidegger analyzed the pre-Socratic philosophical tradition where our surrounding world was seen not as a collection of static beings but as a dynamic process of appearing. This appearing, the way in which things manifested themselves, was called in Ancient Greece physis. Through a Latin translation we are nowadays accustomed to call this same phenomenon nature (natura, engl. nature, birth, character). It seems to me, however, that when we use terms such as ‘ecology’ or ‘environment’ we are unconsciously referring to things and wholes that are more static and, thus, easier to be divided in opposing realms. For example, for something to be an environment some kind of center is, quite logically, required. And this center is often a human being or a human form of being. In Greek tradition, on the other hand, the term ecology originates from oikos, which stands for household, house or family. Thus both environment and oikos, or environment and ecology, are, historically and experientially, determined through human needs and human perception. Of course, in practice things and the different meanings of terms are not this straightforward. But by choosing the concept of nature I wish to stress the post-humanist and anti-Cartesian point of view. Ecophenomenological critiques of the terms of ecology and environment are found in Dillon’s (2007) and Toadvine’s (2009) texts. Philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, on the other hand, have analyzed the phenomenon of physis in depth in their book All Things Shining (2011).

All this doesn’t have to mean that the human experience isn’t essential.

For example, I believe that while we humans are part of the bigger picture, we are tied to nature through a meaningful bond, which is ranging from intellectual to affective and bodily experiences. In Merleau-Ponty’s account (see e.g. Toadvine 2009), we humans become attached to the world through our bodies. For Merleau-Ponty being in the world is foremost a bodily experience. However, body does not separate us from the world. While it defines limits for the individual being and thus separates us from the world, this separation is at the same time artificial. We are attached to the world through our bodies; in fact, we are one with the world, and ‘flesh’ was Merleau-Ponty’s term for the fundamental uniting factor of all being. We are not separated from the world, because everything is the same flesh.


SM: To be listening to music is also fundamentally a bodily experience, and not only as it resonates and vibrates in our bodies. Jane Bennett (2001) refers to an exceptional kind of bodily experience, enchantment, in relation to ethics. She defines enchantment as a state of wonder where one is spellbound, which is entirely affective. She is also discussing music in this context: music is both metaphor and an example of enchanting force, which evokes our need to act for a common good. This brings us back to ecocriticism. Do you understand music as an enchanting and affective force?

JT: I’m not familiar with Bennet’s book and I thank you for introducing it to me. In any case, the affective nature of music is very important, almost essential. When observing the development of ecological crises and the knowledge we have about them, it becomes evident that in order to change our ways of acting we cannot separate affective states from ethics. Like I mentioned before, in order to take care of the world, one needs to have affective relationship to it. Music is dealing directly with the affective side of being. When affect meets knowledge, the change is more likely to start.

I somewhat disagree with environmental philosopher Timothy Morton (2007), who states in his Ecology without Nature that nature writing (and also nature composing) are deceiving, because they have aimed to depict and evoke immersive experiences that rely on the illusion of our original unity with nature. I think that we need immersive experiences simply because they are a major part of our experiential faculty. But it’s like with topophilia: you cannot rely on immersive experiences only. They move you but they do not tell why and where to move. On the other hand, purely symbolic meanings can tell you this “why” and “where” but they do not necessarily (make you) move. If you get the affective power and dynamism from immersion, you also need symbolic meanings and experiences to figure out why and how this dynamism should make you think and act differently, in a more, say, eco-sensitive way. In other words, enchantment is important but one also has to be able to step back from it.


SM: Back to (northern) ecocritical music: When you first mentioned some of your case studies, like Opeth and Wolves in a Throne Room, I had this idea of almost dystopian of apocalyptic musical spheres. But this is not surprising. Environmental music is almost overwhelming in its essence; it is at the same time both conceptual and affective. Conceptual, as it speaks of transcendental and sublime experience. Affective, as it forces us to face the current crises. Thus the essence of ecocritical music is hard to grasp and verbalize.

JT: It seems, generally speaking, that recent environmental music touches the whole of our experiential capacities. What I mean by this is – and this is partly an answer to your previous question, too – that many contemporary forms of music making seem to resemble a broadly naturalistic outlook on human experience (on which I rely) where evolutionarily later and more structured areas of human experience are seen as arising from (and, therefore, explanatorily dependent on) less structured and more archaic areas of experience. Music evokes highly structured, reified and subjective experiences but it also evokes pre-individual, pre-conceptual and asubjective experiences. To have an ecocritical potential in an experiential sense, music has to hover between these two extremes, I think.

Ecocritically interesting music has attained a good balance between these experiential extremes. At the moment I am studying these layers of experience in the context of at least three musical examples. In Kaija Saariahos’s music one finds fascinating combinations of celestial themes with highly suggestive sound-world that can be considered a contemporary “environmental” form of sublimity (or Morton’s hyperobjectivity (Morton 2013)). The bodily environment is the focus in my work on how the curved shapes of Fender Stratocaster have influenced the temporality of guitar improvisation. Moreover, my study on Nordic metal, especially the Swedish band Opeth you mentioned previously, ponders the relationship of nature-related texts to strong affectivity of the sound of music.

For more information, contact Juha Torvinen directly or visit  See also .



Bennett, Jane. 2001. The Enchantment of Modern Life. Attachements, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Böhme, Gernot. 2001. Aisthetik. Vorlesungen über Ästhetik als allgemeine Wahrnehmungslehre. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag.

Casey, Edward S. 1997. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Davidson, Peter. 2005. The Idea of North. London: Reaktion.

Dillon, Martin C. 2007. Merleau-Ponty and the Ontology of Ecology or Apocalypse Later. Teoksessa Cataldi, Suzanne L. & Hamrick, William S. (toim.) Merleau-Ponty and Environmental Philosophy. Dwelling on the Landscapes of Thought. New York: State University of New York Press, 259–272.

Dreyfus, Hubert & Sean Dorrance Kelly. 2011. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. New York: Free Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1977 [1954]. The Question Concerning Technology. In The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York & London: Garland, 3–35.

Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects. Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Minneapolis London: University of Minnesota Press.

Morton, Timothy. 2007. Ecology Without Nature. Re-Thinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge London: Harvard University Press.

Norberg-Schulz, Christian. 1996. Nightlands: Nordic Building. Cambridge, Mass. & London: The MIT Press.

Toadvine, Ted. 2009. Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Torvinen, Juha. 2007. Musiikki ahdistuksen taitona. Filosofinen tutkimus musiikin eksistentiaalis-ontologisesta merkityksestä. Helsinki: Suomen Musiikkitieteellinen Seura.

Torvinen, Juha. (forthcoming). Northern tone and the changing climate. Study on psychedelic folk of Hexvessel and theremin concerto of Kalevi Aho. In Sweers, Britta (ed) Climate Change, Music and the North. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Vadén, Tere & Juha Torvinen. 2014. Musical Meaning in Between. Ineffability, Atmosphere and Asubjectivity in Musical Experience. Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology 1:2, 209–230.


Music, Nature and Environmental Crises: A Northern Perspective on Ecocritical Trends in Contemporary Music

by Juha Torvinen (University of the Arts, Helsinki)

Description of the Research Project “Music, Nature and Environmental Crises”

Environmental concerns have become an inescapable part of the everyday life in the Western world. At the same time, it has been widely acknowledged that scientific research, technological know-how, and legislative regulation are not sufficient to gain a full understanding of these concerns. We also need cultural discussion, imagination, art and vision, that is, we need humanistic understanding.

The main task of the present project is to study the significance of contemporary music to our socio-cultural understanding of ecological problems. The project offers a musicological contribution to the humanist study of environmental crises, which examines the values, meanings, experiences, historical roots and future prospects of these crises. The main research question of the project reads: What is the significance of contemporary music to our general ecological awareness? And furthermore: How might music scholars respond to environmental concerns, and what is the significance of musicological knowledge to ecological awareness?

The main objective of the project is defined further in two ways. First, the music studied consists mainly, but not exclusively, of northerly contemporary classical music. This denotes an artistically ambitious genre and an exceptionally significant site of cultural negotiation about ecological values. Second, the project combines interdisciplinary cultural and philosophical methods with music analytic and music phenomenological methods in order to examine in detail the workings of music as sonic form of cultural imagery that outlines and shapes in a significant way the human being’s relation to the environment.

The project will produce new knowledge in various areas of music and cultural research. It will chart in detail ecocritical aesthetics and environmental strategies in contemporary music. It will reveal in how many and what particular ways music and musical practices influence public views on environmental issues and how the age-old relationship between music and nature has gained new significance in the present-day world dominated by environmental crises. The project will open up and develop new methods of ecocritical music research (ecomusicology). The results are expected to have wide-ranging significance both in the academia and society at large. The project will show how music helps us to live and deal with ecological concerns and by that contributes to our cultural understanding of environmental crises.

For more information, contact Juha Torvinen directly or visit  See also .

Reconnecting the Music-Making Experience: Supporting Small-Scale Local Craftsmanship in the Academic Percussion Community

by Alex Smith


In this essay, I propose a framework for musical instrument manufacturing that draws upon ideas of disconnection and reconnection as they relate to sustainability in order to show how composers, performers, and instrument makers might work together more effectively. As effects of globalization arguably “disconnect” (or obscure linkages between) producers, consumers, and natural resources (Harvey 2009, Robbins 2011), there is a general lack of awareness by consumers in terms of the processes required to craft musical instruments. Fostering reconnections between these actors through more active consumer participation in resource-to-product production processes is one way that disconnection between them can be alleviated (Moran 2006, Renting 2012), allowing for a more ethical, environmentally considerate, and overall more sustainable music-making experience. In this paper I will employ this framework to discuss small-scale, local marimba craftsmanship in the academic percussion instrument market in order to show how reconnecting human and non-human actors might lead toward more sustainable cultures as understanding and appreciation is developed between them.

The environmental impacts of the musical instrument industry have recently become a topic for discussion mainly in terms of the rare and endangered natural resources used for their production. Authors have discussed the scarcity of Brazilian pernambuco for violin bows (Rymer 2004) and guitar woods used by American luthiers (Curtis 1993), for example. The case of the guitar has received mainstream attention as well after the two federal seizures of Malagasy ebony and rosewood from Gibson Guitars in 2009 and 2011 due to their alleged violation of law in international trade (McKinley 2011). In each case, the consumption of such natural resources have wide-ranging impacts on musicians, instrument makers, indigenous populations, and the environment.

Beyond environmental impacts, sustainability more broadly has often been defined as a tripartite concept that deals with negotiations not only in relation to the environment, but also with ethics, and economics (Collin and Collin 2010). Ethics deal with where, how, and by whom products are made and considers embedded inequalities or power dynamics that might exist between the human and non-human actors of production-consumption chains. Economics considers the pricing of goods or natural resources in relation to the extent to which they are environmentally and ethically considerate. The relationship between these three components is hotly contested and can often be the product of self-interest. This is particularly visible in the market for food. At the grocery store, for example, consumers are confronted with a variety of labels such as “organic,” “all-natural,” “local,” “cage free,” and “fair trade.” While some labels carry more weight than others, this overwhelming multitude of sustainability rhetoric might of course be recognized as a form of greenwashing. Nevertheless, the fact remains that growing consumer awareness and demand for transparency is spurring such changes, reflecting positive shifts and “cracks in the neoliberal façade” (Watts, Ilbery & Maye 2005).

Thus, despite the fact that sustainability has a variety of meanings and is often highly politicized, co-opted, and/or contradictory, the tripartite conceptualization can help to reveal sensitive environmental, ethical, and economic concerns within the market for musical instruments. In this study it is applied to the musical instruments used by the academic music community, specifically for percussion. In this community, musical ensembles contain large inventories of percussion instruments, yet musicians rarely know much about their origins, specifically in relation to the natural resources and production processes necessary for their construction. Additionally, the production processes of our globalized political economy often involve the outsourcing of labor and the allocation of international, and often rare, natural resources. Thus, the actors of this music-making experience (makers, players, and natural resources used in musical instruments) are disconnected from one another, resulting in a lack of awareness, understanding, and appreciation. While a fundamental assertion of ecological systems theory is that everything is connected, and while processes of globalization in some senses “connect” us more than ever, this study uses the term “disconnection” in reference to consumer distancing from the various actors involved with production processes and from the environmental and ethical impacts their consumption may have.

In considering these disconnects, the marimba is particularly intriguing due to its extensive use by middle and high school band programs, higher education conservatories and music schools, soloists, professional ensembles, drum corps, and community bands. Most marimbas used by these communities are constructed by large-scale percussion instrument corporations that are often purchased with the click of a button on one of the many percussion instrument distribution company websites. After making a purchase, marimbas usually arrive at one’s doorstep in boxes with no effort required from the consumer to construct the instrument other than basic assembly. As a musical object so integral to the identities, livelihoods, and expressions of musicians—and one with its own meaning, agency (Dawe 2001, Bates 2012), and intrinsic value—I argue that the marimba-musician relationship should be characterized by a much deeper connection.

Fostering reconnection between these actors, then, can lead to more sustainable music cultures, as musicians are able to develop stronger understandings for their musical instruments, and the people, labor, and natural resources required to make them. Additionally, the more direct participation of musicians in the making of their instruments can lead to embodied experiences, positive emotional investment, and relational learning, further intensifying the potential of reconnection (Anderson and Guyas 2012). Like “disconnection,” “reconnection” is a term that is used largely in relation to agro-food systems. Alternative agriculture is increasingly allowing consumers to engage in more local and sustainable food systems as opposed to more global systems of food production (Sage 2011). In other words, reconnection can be contextualized through a more active consumer participation in resource-to-product production processes.

Yet making such reconnections within the academic percussion community is not simple. Far from being confined to agricultural or music communities, disconnection is a systemic and large-scale issue inherent in the broader global political economy. Actors within the marimba production-consumption chain are making economically rational and indeed necessary choices in order to make it in life as performers, makers, distributors, educators, etc. Jeff Todd Titon describes a similar setting of “economic rationality” when coal miners support environmentally destructive practices of mountain top removal due to their economic dependence (Allen, Von Glahn, and Titon 2014). While acknowledging these complexities, however, there are still important entry points and new avenues for reconnection that the academic percussion community might take to begin working toward more sustainable music cultures.

This paper explores one such avenue for reconnection in the academic percussion community: a more active consumer participation in marimba production processes via the support of small-scale local marimba craftsmanship. In the sections that follow, I will discuss small-scale local marimba craftsmanship as a consumer option that fosters reconnections between percussionists, percussion instrument manufacturers, and the instruments they build. In order to better understand the potential of these connections, I conducted interviews with consumers who purchased instruments from small-scale local marimba craftspeople. Consumers were asked about their motivations for selecting the specific maker of their instrument, as well as their experiences and interactions working with them.

Additionally, I employ the ecomusicological conceptualization of sustainability in order to expand upon the tripartite model through the incorporation of a fourth component: “aesthetics.” Known as the “four-legged stool,” this model suggests that not only does sustainability require consideration of the environment, ethics, and economics, but it also requires sustainable efforts and products that are aesthetically pleasing (Allen, Von Glahn, and Titon 2014). More connected musical settings lead to environmental, ethical, and economic benefits, but they also result in unique conceptions of musical artistry. This paper, then, also examines the musical artistry of such settings in relation to the ways small-scale local marimba craftsmanship both require and result in creativity and innovation by drawing from ethnographic research with one small-scale local marimba craftsperson—Matt Kazmierski and his Michigan-based marimba company Planet Marimba. Though I admit my own biases as a student and friend of this marimba craftsperson, I believe that the artistic contributions offered by small-scale, local marimba craftspeople such as Kazmierski can offer valuable insight in relation to our conceptualizations of sustainability.



Connections and Relationships

Overall, interview respondents expressed appreciation for closer connections to the maker of their instrument. For example, Michigan-based percussionist Kelly Krayer (pseudonyms are used for all consumer participants) was asked about her motivations for selecting Planet Marimba over other options in the market today:

Most of it [was] just to be able to talk to someone that is taking the time to hear every bar, to hear everything about the bar, to construct something for me… [it] was more intriguing than anything, and to me better than calling up a factory and going, “Hey, I need a marimba,” and then they’re like, “Cool, we have 70 over here!” … And just seeing Matt and his family; going up there to see the workshop, going up there to hang out with them. Those are pretty much all the reasons. I feel like I’ve kind of gained another family with Matt and Penny too. (Krayer 2014)

Kelly articulates an appreciation for the connection and understanding between herself, Kazmierski, and Kazmierski’s family. This also demonstrates an appreciation for Kazmierski’s understanding of and skills working with the natural resources that are repurposed into her future instrument. Kelly values these connections and understandings in relation to alternative consumer options that might not allow them to exist in the same ways.

Consumers of other small-scale local craftspeople have articulated similar connections. Maryland-based percussionist Brocke Nelson was asked about his experience purchasing an instrument from Matt Coe and his company Coe Percussion in Tallahassee, FL. Brocke and Coe exchanged emails and phone calls over the course of several months discussing the nature of Coe’s craftsmanship, specifics related to Brocke’s instrument, and payment and deadline details. Upon picking up his instrument, Brocke was actually able to visit Coe’s shop:

That was actually a really cool part of the process. You know, he invited us over. He runs everything out of his garage. Like the bottom floor of his house is just a garage woodshop place. And it’s just him, it might be more now, because he’s kind of gaining some clamor and all in the last few years… But when I went down there it was just him doing everything on his own. And yea, it was really cool just to see one dude in his house making these pretty cool instruments. I felt like I’m getting a very personal kind of instrument. Because, like I said, one dude does it all… You can tell the amount of detail and care that this guy puts into everything he does. You can see that in the instrument, and I could see that meeting him and stuff as well. (Nelson 2014)

Brian Peters, another Maryland-based percussionist, was also able to visit the maker of his instrument when he picked up the finished product from Doug DeMorrow and his company DeMorrow Instruments in Arkadelphia, Arkansas:

… So we went down there to pick it up, … and [we] asked if we could visit the shop and kind of see what he does… And, another thing that I really like is that all of his family kind of helps with his marimba making. Like I think his daughter does the bars… and his son does the resonators, and then him and a lot of his friends do the frame. So they kind of all work together as a family… I thought it was really unique that I had the opportunity to do that. Just to see like who makes the instrument, and what they are all about. You know, in terms of their craft. (Peters 2014)

Brocke and Brian express sentiments of connection between both the maker of their instrument and their instrument itself. However, here they also express an appreciation for understandings related to the production processes and labor required for their instrument’s construction.

The support of small-scale local craftsmanship, then, might be considered a transformational experience. This idea is drawn from the discussion of transformational tourism, a concept described as human experience that then leads to a significant change in perspective and action (Reisinger 2013 and Zimmerman 1988). By purchasing marimbas from small-scale local makers, consumers are able to reconnect in terms of knowing their instrument’s maker, developing understandings for instrument production processes, and interacting with the natural resources that comprise musical instruments. For Kelly, Brocke, and Brian, these experiences served as a source of value that could only be obtained by consuming specifically in these ways. If consumers continue to desire the benefits associated with an initial experience of small-scale local craftsmanship patronage, then a consumer transformation has occurred. Transformed consumers in this sense might be considered sensitive to both the sound of the instrument they intend to buy as well as what it takes to make it.

Initial connections between musicians and instrument makers can also lay the groundwork for longer-term, enduring ones. These connections can ultimately lead to the sustained lives of musical instruments since musicians have more accessibility to repair and upgrade work because of their direct relationship with instrument makers. According to Kelly Krayer:

… You know, if you break a bar… maybe Matt can repair it, maybe Matt has another bar, that, you know, probably won’t cost that much. Or if a resonator breaks or gets scratched… he was telling me that its just brushed aluminum or polished… so if it gets scratched then just polish it back and its fine. So there’s the ability to not be afraid that life is going to happen. Which, you know, is nice reassurance to know that that’s there. (Krayer 2014)

Additionally, Brocke Nelson decided to purchase a low-cost practice instrument from Matt Coe because it could be upgraded at any time rather than having to wastefully purchase a completely new instrument later.

… It was $3000 for what I purchased. But the only thing that separates it from a full fledge instrument is the lack of resonators. I think at the time I purchased, which was around four years ago, it was like $5,000 for him to build the resonators. But he said he could do it … at any time. I heard a lot of people actually do that. (Nelson 2014)

Instrument upgrading and repair are some of many benefits of these enduring social connections between consumers and small-scale local craftspeople that end up allowing for sustained lives of musical instruments.

These same social connections allow musicians and institutions to purchase marimbas in economically sustainable ways that would ordinarily not be able to afford them. Buying a marimba is often considered a substantial financial endeavor and a lifetime commitment. Because of the direct relationship between musicians and small-scale local marimba craftspeople, there is an increased understanding of and willingness to negotiate for a product that is appropriate for a given consumer’s finances, yielding an instrument that uniquely conforms to budgetary guidelines. For example, all of my informants mentioned that a major determining factor for choosing the maker of their instrument was related to the affordable options they were offered; some of these options include payment plans, cost-effective designs, starter instruments that could later be upgraded, and remodeling older preexisting instruments. Regardless of budget, musicians that support small-scale local marimba craftsmanship still often contribute in the process of designing their instrument. Michigan-based percussionist Astrid Lam had this to say about her motivations behind choosing Matt Kazmierski as the maker of her instrument:

I wanted a marimba, but the large-company marimbas are really expensive, and Matt has offered me a really good deal. And also I can choose whatever height or what kind of wood I want [for the frame]. (Lam 2014)

In Astrid’s experience, not only has she and Kazmierski successfully negotiated an instrument that can match her budget, but she is still able to take part in personalized elements of its design.


Critical Considerations

The positive aspects of reconnection aside, it is also necessary to acknowledge the ways that small-scale local craftsmanship might fall short in terms of sustainability. From an environmental perspective the production of marimbas often requires the consumption of the increasingly rare and endangered rosewood for the production of its “bars” (Carmenates 2009). Additionally, rosewood’s incorporation in the production of any American marimba requires that the resource be acquired internationally, which globalizes the production chain and greatly enlarges the carbon footprint of the production process. In other words, small-scale local craftspeople incorporate these materials on their products just like large companies, meaning that they too are confronting issues of sustainability associated with the woods they use.

Select individuals and organizations within the academic percussion community have begun to address these issues through experimentation with alternative bar materials. The most common of these materials are the synthetic options offered by large-scale percussion instrument companies. Though synthetic options reduce the amount of instruments that are produced with rare woods, the same disconnected production processes are at play in that consumers of these instruments are removed from their production. Additionally, and due to lower material costs, financial considerations seem to be motivating producers to make and consumers to purchase these synthetic options rather than environmental ones.

A second setting of bar material substitution is seen in my own work as an instrument craftsperson. My short film entitled The Michigandered Marimba [external link] documents the making of a marimba comprised of all-Michigan woods and recycled resources. I tested six domestic wood options and selected Michigan sassafras as the wood for the bars on this instrument. Also, my most recent work with the Michigan-based sextet Los Banditos experiments with glass as a bar material substitute. These two examples are by no means the first or only attempts at using alternative woods and materials for bars. For example, Minnesota-based percussionist Jeremy Johnston has made experimentation with bar material substitutions to rosewood a large component of his DMA research in an attempt to present comparable alternatives to the percussion community. The Brazilian percussion group Uakti is well known for not only making glass marimbas, but also many other instruments from unconventional materials. Not to mention that a simple search on YouTube will reveal a small number of people from around the world who have done their own experiments with these materials and beyond. Despite these efforts, alternative materials are often not valued or integrated by our larger percussion community in the same ways as the more traditional and environmentally problematic bar materials.

A second aspect of small-scale local craftsmanship that could be considered less-than sustainable is the power tools these craftspeople use. In competing with the production speeds and slick designs of large-scale companies, small-scale local craftspeople of the marimba, too, must incorporate certain power tools that might have similar disconnected histories as the percussion instruments being discussed in this paper. The reliance of the marimba craft community as a whole on such tools inevitably adds to these ideas of disconnection between the actors of the music-making experience. It also complicates the carbon footprint of marimba production in relation to the types and amounts of power required to run them. The incorporation of rosewood for marimba bars and the use of power tools for instrument production both present similar structural and systematic issues of sustainability within the larger marimba craft community.



Despite these sustainability issues facing the larger marimba craft community, the elements of reconnection associated with small-scale local craftsmanship remain significant. However, though reconnection is a consequence of supporting small-scale local craftsmanship, and for some consumers an actual motivation for buying from a particular maker, the artistry and innovation of such craftsmanship might provide an additional source of value (Allen 2012). This aspect suggests that supporting small-scale local marimba craftsmanship not only leads to a more sustainable music-making experience in terms of ethics and economics, but it also results in products that are aesthetically pleasing.

Small-scale local craftspeople offer products that transcend instrument standardizations associated with large-scale craftsmanship, even though they are also often the result of idiosyncratic restrictions. For example, Kazmierski’s dedication to self-sufficient production processes allows him to transcend personal limitations—such as tool availability and a lack of metalworking skill sets—with an innovative, artistic voice. Because of these limitations, Kazmierski relies fully on his trade as a wood craftsperson and thus does not incorporate any metals on the instruments he makes. Kazmierski’s notable innovations include all-wooden frames, all-wooden posts, and extended range. Emphasizing the innovative and artistic aspects of small-scale local marimba craftspeople such as Kazmierski may serve as an incentive for consumers to choose such makers, allowing reconnections to happen more broadly.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Kazmierski’s artistic voice is most noticeably and publicly known for his mission-style and shaker-furniture frame designs. Constructed from local Michigan wood, this aspect of Kazmierski’s trade makes his product distinct and easily recognized (Figure 1). Even more interesting is that each of these designs is the result of negotiations between the consumer’s aesthetic preferences and Kazmierski’s offerings as a wood craftsperson. For example, Kelly Krayer had this to say about her participation in designing her instruments’ frame:

… He just asked me what I wanted it to look like: What color? What was I looking for in the frame? And I honestly had no idea because we are so used to the generic looking marimbas… I wanted a light color wood so that the bars would come out, and I gave him that information and I told him, “You know more about wood than I do, so do what you think looks best…” So he made it out of oak and the texture of the oak is just so cool. And it smells good. (Krayer 2014)

Beyond his frames’ apparent aesthetic value, they are also functional and practical. The only metal hardware on Kazmierski’s marimbas is minimal, eliminating common rattle sounds that often result from marimba frames with metal-on-metal contact.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Another area of artistry and innovation in Kazmierski’s craftsmanship are his all-wooden posts. Posts are small pieces that usually reside between marimba bars; they support a cord that threads the bars and allows them to resonate. Kazmierski’s all-wooden posts support the marimba bars from the underside, rather than in between, reducing the total size of his marimbas by over a foot (Figure 2). Kazmierski has received mixed opinions with regard to his all-wooden posts. Some of his customers and colleagues have expressed concern that reducing the size by an entire foot makes it difficult to translate repertoire to other marimbas (Kazmierski 2012). Kelly Krayer, on the other hand, has had a much different experience with Kazmierski’s all-wooden posts:

… Just how he puts the bars on the posts instead of in between posts so that makes them closer… it’s a slight difference, but its enough to make it much easier to play the extended ranges of things. Just the ability to play octaves comfortably in my left hand, because when you get to [wide-bar instruments], there’s no way I can play an octave. I have always played in pain trying to over extend myself in difficult repertoire. Now, I can play all this rep without pain. I’m more centered. I don’t have to over extend my arms and jump around like a maniac. Who knew all those years of pain could have been fixed by playing an instrument that actually was made for me. I could probably play Merlin now, and other pieces like it. (Krayer 2014)

For Kelly, reducing instrument size is a significant innovation, as wider intervals are often difficult to play. Kazmierski’s consolidation of space facilitates the performance of such intervals, opening the door for new performance techniques, note combinations, and repertoire.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Extended range is a final way that Kazmierski’s trade is not only innovative and artistic, but also environmentally considerate. In today’s market for marimbas the most common instrument size is five octaves (C2-C7). In addition to a marimba, academic percussion organizations most often own an entirely separate mallet percussion instrument called a xylophone (a higher pitched version of the marimba often with a range of three and a half octaves [F4-C8]). Kazmierski’s instruments might eliminate the need for many organizations to own both of these instruments since he often extends the range of his marimbas by twelve notes in the upper register, producing a six-octave marimba/xylophone hybrid (C2-C8) (Figure 3). Not only does this potentially eliminate the need for two separate instruments (marimba and xylophone), but, according to Astrid Lam, Kazmierski’s innovation also allows for new conceptions of artistry in relation to composition and performance:

Matt’s marimba combines a regular marimba with a xylophone, so that will be an interesting point for composers to think about. For example, if you’re going to switch from a marimba to a xylophone, you have to give the performers time, but if we use Matt’s marimba we can easily play both. (Lam 2014)

Kazmierski is one example of an artistic and innovative small-scale local craftsperson, but these aspects are certainly not limited to his trade alone. Both Brocke and Brian articulated sentiments of uniqueness and aesthetic value associated with the instruments they bought from Matt Coe and Doug DeMorrow. These sentiments have and will continue to influence the decisions of consumers to consider small-scale local alternatives. Making the artistic and innovative aspects of small-scale local craftspeople better known to the percussion community might boost their consumer base, leading to more reconnections between the actors of the music-making experience.



As globalized markets increasingly delink production from consumption (Harvey 2009; Robbins 2011), the academic percussion community should be aware of social, economic, and environmental consequences in the making of percussion instruments. Specifically, strides toward more sustainable music cultures (Allen 2014) can be made in the production of marimbas by first fostering reconnections between the actors of this music-making experience. In this paper I have explored a few types of reconnections being made by supporting small-scale local marimba craftsmanship.

Though this form of production is not free from sustainability issues surrounding the incorporated natural resources (Carmenates 2009) and tool usage, the elements of reconnection associated with small-scale local craftsmanship remain significant. Supporting such craftsmanship permits more direct producer-consumer relationships, allowing for more interaction and collaboration between producers and consumers in the instrument design process. These reconnections help to create a strong cultural foundation for sustainability.

As seen in the work of Matt Kazmierski and Planet Marimba, small-scale local craftsmanship can be an artistic and innovative form of marimba production, transcending instrument craft standardizations associated with large-scale production. Such artistry and innovation can serve as a promotional tool for small-scale local craftsmanship. A larger consumer base may result if these aspects are emphasized to the percussion community, allowing reconnections to occur more frequently.

Moving forward, this discussion of reconnection and small-scale local marimba craftsmanship poses ongoing questions about other forms of reconnection that might exist in the academic percussion community: How might stronger relationships between human and non-human actors, by way of incorporating more environmentally considerate natural resources and more sustainable production processes, produce alternative conceptions of sustainability for academic percussionists? How might a direct consumer participation in instrument production processes also be influential? Small-scale local craftsmanship presents one avenue for reconnection in the academic percussion community, but other avenues should be investigated as we strive for holistic sustainability.



I would like to thank Dr. Michael Largey, Dr. Jon Weber, Professor Gwen Dease, Dr. Ken Prouty, and Dr. Laura Johnson for their ongoing support of my work. I would also like to thank Dr. Aaron Allen and Andrew Mark for their assistance in preparing this paper.



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Music and Coal Activism: Perspectives from the Field

By Travis D. Stimeling (West Virginia University), Saro Lynch-Thomason (Blair Pathways, Asheville, NC), Nate May (College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati), and Andrew Munn (Bard College)


Driving through Central Appalachia, it is nearly impossible to avoid the impact of more than a century of coal extraction in the region. Cars with West Virginia and Kentucky license plates are emblazoned with the logo of the “Friends of Coal,” a coal industry lobbying organization that has garnered extensive grassroots support in the region. Enormous gashes in the sides and through the middles of mountains—sometimes several hundred feet deep—permit the easy transportation of minerals removed through invasive mountaintop removal coal mining practices throughout southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia.

Less visible, but no less potent, is the remarkable legacy of musicians who have stood strong in the face of the coal industry and the economic and environmental devastation that it often leaves in its wake. The scarred hills of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky recall the powerful voices of Elaine Purkey and Florence Reece, who encouraged miners and their families to stand in solidarity for fair pay and safe working conditions, while Jean Ritchie’s “Black Water” imagines the forceful eviction of the coal industry from the region. In a region celebrated for its role in the development of early country music, music has played a significant role in documenting the complexities of living in a region that has been marked as backwards and out-of-touch with modernity but that still bears the wounds of more than a century of industrial colonization (Green 1972, Whisnant 1984). Musicologists have only recently begun to consider the ecocritical aspects of music in the region, revealing the powerful role that place plays in contemporary political song (Stimeling 2012) and the old-time music community (Knickerbocker 2014).

During the Ecomusics/Ecomusicologies 2014 meeting in Asheville, North Carolina, a panel of musician-activists comprising ballad singer Saro Lynch-Thomason, composer Nate May, singer Andrew Munn, and composer-playwright Molly Sturges discussed their efforts to use music to draw attention to the ongoing challenges that coal extraction poses for the residents of central Appalachia and the fight against global climate change. Utilizing the conventions of traditional Appalachian balladry, art song, and musical theater, these musical activists are using music to raise local, regional, national, and even global awareness of the impacts of coal extraction and consumption among diverse communities of environmental activists, scholars, and consumers of coal-generated electrical power. In this brief report, three of the panelists explore their individual approaches to musical environmental activism, discuss the challenges and opportunities that have arisen from their work, and offer some strategies that we might use to deploy music as a tool to engage communities in public and private discourse about significant environmental issues in our own communities. Rather than presenting academic approaches to this problem, these activists offer their first-person perspectives on the challenges and opportunities posed by contemporary musical activism against mountaintop removal. Taken together, they demonstrate the potential that politically- and environmentally-engaged musicians have to cultivate conversations around the ongoing climate crisis, as well as the cultural, economic, and environmental impacts of our continued involvement with fossil fuels.


Saro Lynch-Thomason:

My work in musical activism has its roots way back in my childhood. Growing up Unitarian Universalist in Nashville, TN taught me that social justice work was an inherent part of one’s spiritual values and that music was a powerful tool to express these values. The Civil Rights anthems, Protestant hymns, and choral compositions I was raised with gave me an understanding of how people—Southerners in particular—had used music to express their struggles and victories. However, I didn’t begin to make musical activism a purposeful part of my life until I left the South for school in New York.

In college in the Hudson River Valley, I learned for the first time about mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. In addition, I became exposed to Appalachian traditional songs and began to see the relationship between the economic struggles in Appalachia and the music produced there. I turned my gaze back to the region I was raised in and decided to move to North Carolina, where I began to engage in environmental activism. Since then my role as an activist has largely been as a media producer, essentially using art to teach others about Appalachia’s history and needs.

In 2011, I became concerned about the fate of Blair Mountain, a site in West Virginia that had been the location of a massive coal miner’s uprising in 1921. Beginning in 2010, several coal companies had declared their plans to strip-mine Blair. Blair’s natural and historic significance led several regional groups to reenact the miner’s march in the summer of 2011. Attending the march made me realize the vital impact that singing could have on the morale of a movement. From the very beginning of the event, unfriendly portions of the local community made march participants feel threatened and unsafe. We responded to this by singing with a volume and power that I had never heard before nor witnessed since. Songs like the traditional “Under My Feet” helped us declare our intentions with relish: “I went down to the coal operator and I took back what he stole from me. / I took back my dignity and I took back my humanity, / and ain’t no system gonna walk all over me.” We sang when we were tired, nervous, bored, and joyful, and those rhythms and melodies carried us through multiple counties, through 90-degree heat, all the way to the summit of Blair Mountain.

After the march, I decided that I wanted to do a project that helped the general public understand the 1921 miner’s uprising and to discuss why that history is worth preserving. I had seen music’s impact in moments of struggle, and decided that I wanted to convey the history of the West Virginia coal wars through the songs that mining communities used during strikes and protest. I eventually compiled Blair Pathways, a CD featuring more than twenty musicians that used Appalachian musical traditions including hymnody, ballad singing, barbershop quartet styles and black spirituals to tell the story of the West Virginia mine wars. The CD was accompanied by a map and essay series that explained the origin and historical significance of each song. After publishing Blair Pathways, I toured with a multi-media presentation called The Mine Wars Show that used material and music researched for the CD.

Through these experiences, I’ve debated the impact that music can have in social and environmental movements. Music has an important place in the fight to end MTR. However, the way that the music is practiced determines its level of impact. The Blair Pathways project, for example, is designed for passive listening, whereas singing songs on a protest or a march begs emotional engagement from the participants. Though Blair Pathways is an important informative tool, it does not necessarily demand the emotional presence that makes a movement successful. Understanding the tenacity, sorrow, anger, and hope of coalfield communities comes from participation with those communities. It comes from seeing a strip mine site for the first time, hearing a person with black lung struggle to breathe, or sitting in a lush, diverse forest and knowing how easy it is for a dragline to take it all away. When a person comes to feel something deeply about such things, they begin to understand what that music from a century ago was about. Then when those songs are led in meetings, at protests, or in jail they carry the singer and affirm the singer’s experience. A musical production like Blair Pathways lets the listener hear the feelings of a generation of people, but it can’t replace that vital sense of confirmation that comes when someone uses their own body, their own voice to sing through their own struggles.


Andrew Munn:

I am reluctant to call my activism musical or my music activism, though both are expressions of passion, born of conviction and echoes of hope for an egalitarian and ecologically sensible society. In 2007, while a music student at the University of Michigan, where Nate [May] and I met, I became involved in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on campus and linked with like-minded students across the state to leverage our claim to the future as advocates for sustainable state and federal climate and energy policies. As I learned of the present material economic processes that drove climate change, and their historic and ideological roots, I came to question the value of music and the western art tradition. It seemed to me that it was an obfuscating ornate veneer on history that painted over the legacy of violence and imperialism that European-Americans inherit. We spend more time learning of eighteenth-century European philosophy as the catalyst for the foundation of the American republic and the French Revolution than we do grappling with the concurrent genocide of indigenous people across this continent. Bring up the injustices of history, and art is pointed to as history’s redeemer. With an axe to grind with history and a hope for the future, I abandoned music and threw myself into resisting fossil fuel extraction, finding camaraderie and in communities of locals and uprooted activists (like me) fighting MTR in West Virginia.

From 2009 to 2014, I worked with communities impacted by MTR to oppose the practice on the local to national level. The effort in which music had the most visible role was the 2011 March on Blair Mountain. We organized 500 activists to march 50 miles through the coalfields of Boone and Logan Counties, retracing the route of the rebelling miners in 1921. Campsite after campsite was pulled out from under us, and since we were not in all-out rebellion, we respected property law and ran a headache-inducing, patched-together shuttle system of volunteered cars and buses to move the march from its daily route back to a rented warehouse in the Kanawha Valley near Charleston. Heat, threats of violence, and exhaustion threatened the viability of the march, and as the central organizing team stitched together one logistical contingency plan after another, Saro stepped in at crucial points and used group singing to bolster march morale, and connect it to the history of Appalachian movements that our march continued and the music came from. Here, where marchers were making the choice to face real danger, I saw music’s, and a musician’s, power to forge and direct collective will through adversity.

Though the fight to save Blair Mountain and end MTR is winnable within our current economic and political framework, the larger struggle for an equitable and ecological society is ultimately incompatible with the material and ideological foundations of our culture. As I rediscovered my love for the physical act of singing—the vibration of these little membranes in my neck—I came to think on the question of cultural change, a long or swift unpredictable process by which the boundary of what is and is not possible shifts: this is what animates my musical life.

I reached out to Nate in 2012 about writing a song cycle that dealt with some of these questions, initially imagining a more abstract work, not necessarily narrative or grounded in Appalachia. I err on the side of the long view in looking back at history and the generations ahead—instability and new unrecognizable equilibriums—the liquidity of capital in the present where a mine shuttered in West Virginia is transmuted into an expanded mine in Columbia’s coalfields. But through that, I hold an unparalleled love for place in Appalachia that was, is, and will be, so I am thankful to Nate for having the insight and courage to tether this work to the present moment in Appalachia.

In these times of swift change, as the nature of our ecological and social relationships are transformed in the global economy—most often without our consent or clear intention—and we hurtle into a new climate, depleted biosphere, an increasingly digitally navigated and manifested world, a robust cultural apparatus is needed to make sense of the world and our experiences, and if I am to be optimistic, guide desirable changes. I absolutely believe in music and narrative’s ability to do this, and music that deals with the complexity of 21st century life, whether from the vantage point of a hollow in West Virginia or making climate data into an aural experience, fills a void in a culture dominated by escapism and a stunted lexicon.


Nate May:

I remember flying in a small plane toward Charleston, West Virginia in the summer of 2009, twenty-one years old and profoundly changed by the year I had just spent studying music in South Africa. I had left the country feeling untethered, having grown up a misfit in West Virginia and having left it gladly for college in Michigan. But living in South Africa had revealed the sense of home that lived in me, and when the plane dipped below the clouds and I could see the waves of mesophytic green veined by blue-black waterways, I felt deeply thankful for the blessing of return. The couple next to me were vacationers from California, and I was happy to give them an insider’s perspective on the state. I also felt it was my responsibility, when we flew over vast scabs of Martian terrain, to explain mountaintop removal mining. Every time I explain the practice to those who haven’t heard of it, I’m met with disbelief that such ecological violence could happen on American soil. Yet, safely ensconced in an economically desperate state with a tradition of sacrifice, the practice continues.

The son of an ecologist, I had heard about mountaintop removal mining, and the scientific consensus against it, for most of my life. The first time I saw it from the ground was in 2008, with my friend Andrew Munn, on the property of one of the great local resisters, Larry Gibson. Andrew and I had just spent several days backpacking in the Cranberry backcountry, and the freshness of the experience of diverse and thriving wilderness, along with Larry’s passionate accounts of the mine’s impact on his family, made the sight of a stripped mountaintop that much more heart wrenching. When I learned a few years later that Andrew had moved to this very region to work against this very practice, I was happy and somewhat jealous. Meanwhile, I had been toying with the idea of writing a piece of music that would honor my connection with my home and bring to light the dramatic effects of life in proximity to mountaintop removal mining. When Andrew wrote in 2012 to share his vision for a piece that came from similar feelings of rage and love, I immediately felt the magical potential for collaboration. That same year, while clearing brush on what was left of his beloved mountain, Larry Gibson died of a heart attack. During an emotional memorial service held for him, the audience was given wristbands and told to wear them as a reminder of Larry, and to work in his honor. I left mine on my wrist for months while researching and writing Dust in the Bottomland.

Despite Andrew’s experience with coordinated and focused community action, we determined early on that we were not setting out to write protest songs. Appalachia has a powerful tradition of protest songs, such as those sung by Andrew and Saro during the Blair Mountain march, but this project had a different goal—to engage on a psychological level with experiences common to residents of coal country. Some of these experiences—displacement by mining and prescription drug abuse in particular—are tragedies, and some, such as the deep connection to land and community, are to be envied by many outside the region. Out of these experiences we developed a narrative—a man who has grown up in southern West Virginia leaves it behind for professional opportunities and never looks back until his sister falls into a coma induced by an opiate overdose. The narrative functions only as a framework—no real events unfold during the course of the songs or spoken text. Instead, we begin to get a glimpse into the psychological underpinnings of these events. We learn that the overdose was precipitated by their family’s displacement by a mountaintop removal mine. We learn that the ambitions of the protagonist and his sister have led them to different lives—his to college in Iowa and a white-collar job in Detroit, and hers to self-employment as the owner of a flower shop in their hometown. We learn of his relative apathy toward his homeplace, and we watch it break down and turn to rage when he sees the scars that the mining has left.

In touring this piece, we’ve found the spaces of our performances to be ecotones—meetings of those who came to support a cause and those who came to for an evening of music. A significant portion of our New York City audience had never heard of mountaintop removal mining, while many at our Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia performances had never seen live art song. While our piece can’t claim responsibility for revoking permits or changing legislation, I feel that we have set the stage for more empathetic awareness of the life in the coalfields, and we have given people fodder for socially relevant thought and conversation in a place where it’s not often sought: Appalachian art song.



The fight against MTR in central Appalachia is a remarkably musical one. Songwriters express the region’s complicated relationship with coal and try to bring attention to the voices of the people who live in these rural industrial landscapes. Marchers are taking up banjos, guitars, fiddles, and voices and bringing new life to perennial protest songs. Composers are writing scores for documentary films and concert performances, carrying news of coal’s regional and global impacts to audiences that may have difficulty picturing an Appalachia that is not filled with caricatured hillbillies and poverty. And still other creative people—such as composer-playright Molly Sturges, whose Coal: The Musical creates opportunities for community theater groups to curate conversations about the impacts of coal usage—are finding new ways to use music to engage public discourse. Although music’s power in social and political movements is limited, the reflections presented here indicate that music can be an extremely effective tool to build solidarity, raise consciousness, and release one’s personal anxieties. As the debate around MTR—and fossil fuel consumption, more generally—continues to unfold, musical activism can serve a very important purpose: to remind us of the human costs of fossil fuel extraction and consumption and rural industrial colonization.


Selected Bibliography:

Appalachian Voices. 2013. “Mountaintop Removal 101.” <>.

Barry, Joyce M. 2012. Standing Our Ground: Women, Environmental Justice, and the Fight to End Mountaintop Removal. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Bridle, James. 2011. “Waving at the Machines.” Keynote address at Web Directions South, Sydney, Australia, October 11-14, 2011. Video and transcript. <>.

Burns, Shirley Stewart. 2007. Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Butler, Tom, ed. 2009. Plundering Appalachia: The Tragedy of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining. San Rafael, CA: Earth Aware Books.

Green, Archie. 1972. Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hirsch, Susan F., and E. Franklin Dukes. 2014. Mountaintop Mining in Appalachia: Understanding Stakeholders and Change in Environmental Conflict. Athens: Ohio University Press.

“Hobet Mine Complex Overlayed [sic] on 38 US Cities.” 2014. <>.

House, Silas, and Jason Howard. 2009. Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 2015. “Learn More about Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining.” <>.

Kingsnorth, Paul. 2013. “Dark Ecology.” Orion, January/February. <>.

Knickerbocker, Scott. 2014. “Green Banjo: The Ecoformalism of Old-Time Music.” In The Oxford Handbook of Ecocrticism. Ed. Greg Garrard. New York: Oxford University Press. 475-486.

Lynch-Thomason, Saro, prod. 2011. Blair Pathways: A Musical Exploration of America’s Largest Labor Uprising. <>.

May, Nate. 2013. Dust in the Bottomland. n.p.

McNeil, Bryan T. 2012. Combating Mountaintop Removal: New Directions in the Fight against Big Coal. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

McQuaid, John. 2009. “Mining the Mountains.” Smithsonian (January). <>.

Scott, Rebecca R. 2010. Removing Mountains: Extracting Nature and Identity in the Appalachian Coalfields. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Shapiro, Henry D. 1978. Appalachia On Our Mind. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Shapiro, Tricia. 2010. Mountain Justice: Homegrown Resistance to Mountaintop Removal, for the Future of Us All. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Stimeling, Travis D. 2012. “Music, Place, and Identity in the Central Appalachian Mountaintop Removal Mining Debate.” American Music 30, no. 1 (Spring): 1-29.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2013. “Music and the US War on Poverty: Some Reflections.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 45: 74–82.

_____. 2014. “So Help Me Kentucky: Music, Culture, and Poverty According to the New York Times.” Sustainable Music: A Research Blog on the Subject of Sustainability and Music. 31 August. <>.

Whisnant, David E. 1984. All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits: 1. An Introduction

by Tyler Kinnear (University of British Columbia)


The evolving field of ecomusicology engages a particularly complex and contested topic through the cultural study of music and sound; that is, the physical environment. There is no shortage of categories of environment to consider, each with their own criteria: natural, built, rural, urban, abandoned, reclaimed, pastoral, polluted, etc. Who defines, influences, and preserves categories pertaining to the environment? How do these categories inform music and sound research? What role(s) might ecomusicology play in thinking about and applying categories in a time of environmental crisis? This collection of articles seeks to provoke discussion of these and other questions concerning ecomusicology and categorization. Each article explores an environment that transcends seemingly straightforward classification. The authors go beyond music to draw from other humanities disciplines as well as the social and natural sciences in order to illuminate these spaces.

Alexandra Hui, in “The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies,” examines new forms of listening put forth by the Edison Re-Creation records of the 1910s and 1920s and environmental sound records of the 1950s and 1960s. She brings musical aesthetics, listening culture, and in the case of the Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program psychological experimentation into conversation. Hui demonstrates the powerful role of research, marketing, and the recorded medium in creating new categories of music, environment, and listener/consumer. Daniel Grimley crosses temporal, spatial, and disciplinary boundaries in “Sibelius Beyond Categorical Limits.” Ecomusicological in approach, he uses four discursive modes to investigate Finland as a border zone: 1) monumentalization of landscape, 2) topographic representation, 3) landscape as text, and 4) landscape as cartography. Together, these tools create a network of relations under the categories of landscape and identity that are not necessarily accessible through conventional research methods. In “There’s No Place,” James Currie asserts that artifice has an important role to play in times of environmental crisis. He begins with an interrogation of what he calls the “aura of relevance” in much ecocritical scholarship, where research maintains a moral investment in the wellbeing of the environment. Currie turns to a place of artifice—The Land of Oz (from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz)—where common notions of place and belonging are destabilized. In line with recent scholarship that calls for alternative approaches to ecomusicology (Rehding 2011; Titon 2013), Currie prompts us to avoid over-determining the “reality” of the physical environment and to instead consider the alternative realities of music.

With a call for greater engagement with environmental crises in music scholarship (Allen 2014), we should consider whether the ways in which we categorize help us to better understand ecological issues or if they in some way hinder productive engagement with these challenges. When thinking about what ecomusicology could—and should—do to help address real-world issues, it may also be beneficial to reflect on how ecomusicology is categorized as a discipline, and how it relates to other disciplinary and sub-disciplinary categories. One of the dangers of categorization is that ecomusicology itself is categorized within the academy. To conduct music research in a time of environmental crisis, and to carry a sense of urgency with it (Rehding 2011), are scholars not projecting a stereotype onto those who employ it in the process? Given the current climate, now may be an opportune time to ask which disciplinary and aesthetic categories should be maintained, modified, eliminated, and created (if even momentarily). Whichever approach is taken, we remain face-to-face with categorical decisions.


Part of the panel “Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits”:

  1. “An Introduction.” By Tyler Kinnear (University of British Columbia)
  2. “The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies.” By Alexandra Hui (Mississippi State University)
  3. “Sibelius Beyond Categorical Limits.” By Daniel Grimley (University of Oxford)
  4. “There’s No Place.” By James Currie (University at Buffalo)


Citations and Bibliography:

Ake, David, Garrett, Charles H., and Daniel Goldmark, eds. Jazz/Not Jazz: The Music and Its Boundaries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Allen, Aaron S. Introduction to “Sustainability and Sound: Ecomusicology Inside and Outside the Academy.” Music & Politics 8, no. 2 (Summer 2014). DOI:

Born, Georgina. “For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinarity, Beyond the Practice Turn.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135 (2010): 205–43.

Hanninen, Dora A. “Associative Sets, Categories, and Music Analysis.” Journal of Music Theory 48, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 147­–218.

Levitz, Tamara, ed. “Musicology Beyond Borders?” Special issue, Journal of the American Musicological Society 65, no. 3 (Fall 2012).

Mundy, Rachel. “Evolutionary Categories and Musical Style from Adler to America.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 67, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 735–­­68.

Rehding, Alexander. “Ecomusicology between Apocalypse and Nostalgia.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 409–14.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Labels: Identifying Categories of Blues and Gospel.” In The Cambridge Companion to Blues and Gospel edited by Allan Moore, 13–19. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

­­­­———. “The Nature of Ecomusicology.” Música e Cultura: revista da ABET 8, no. 1 (2013): 8–18.

Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits: 2. The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies

by Alexandra Hui (Mississippi State University)


Historians have, in the last decade or so, expanded their approach to the past to include sensory experiences. Sounds and ways of listening to them—what people heard, what sounds had meaning to them—have been established as an important way to understand the past (Johnson 1995; Picker 2003; Smith 2000; Sterne 2003; Thompson 2002). The senses are at, indeed form the very foundation of, the unstable intersection of nature and culture (Jay 2011). Specific ways of listening were and are in service of specific understandings of nature.

Through a brief discussion of two case studies, I examine how individuals’ conception of their environment related to their aural perception of it. The first case study was an early effort by the Edison Company to train consumers’ aural perceptions. The second is an exploration of post-war sound recordings of both the natural environment and the built environment. Through these case studies, I explore the consequences of introducing new sound objects and new forms of listening for understandings of nature in built environments.


Case 1: The Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program

In 1914, the Edison Company, seeing value in large-scale marketing schemes aimed at cultivating new forms of listening in the public, launched a program of what they alternately termed demonstration recitals, tone tests, and Re-Creation recitals. These performances took place in Edison shops, private homes, and community gathering spaces. Demonstrators (overseen by the Edison Company), sometimes assisted by Edison recording artists, would instruct the audience on the proper operation of the device. They also instructed the audience on what to listen for, emphasizing the quality and fidelity of sound generated by the Edison machine. These demonstration recitals were a means of training listeners to receive the phonograph’s sound in a very specific way. The audiences were taught to be experts on sound fidelity (Thompson 1995). Further, they were trained to be experts at a new kind of listening. They could separate music from noise and to ignore, possibly not even hear, the latter.

Building on the success of the demonstration recitals, the Edison Company approached Walter Van Dyke Bingham, director of the Division of Applied Psychology at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Bingham’s functionalist approach to psychology is evident in his researches on the motor effects of music and eventual belief that they could be measured and universalized. The Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program was given $10,000 and a set of Edison Re-Creation records to study “the psychological reactions which definite forms of music produce in the human mind” (November 3, 1919 letter, Walter Van Dyke Bingham Collection). Among other activities the Research Program performed a series of lab experiments in which individuals practiced in “introspection” (a self-witnessing technique in experimental psychology at the time) gave their emotional responses to various Re-Creation records. The results of these experiments were then used to develop the Mood Change Chart.

The Mood Change Chart was a form to be filled out during a Mood Change Test in an Edison shop, the privacy of one’s own living room, or at the Mood Change Parties the Edison Company encouraged (William Maxwell Files). The listener indicated the time of day, the weather, and their location. They then could choose from a set of options to answer “What kind of music did you feel like hearing?” and “What was your mood immediately preceding test?” The listener was then asked to indicate the “Re-Creation [record] causing such change” along with blanks to write in their mood change from “______ to ______.” The Mood Change Test could be performed three times per form. Listeners were asked to include additional comments on the back, sign the chart, and either turn it in at an Edison shop or mail to the Edison Laboratories.

The public was encouraged to take the Mood Change Test as part of a grand and innovative experiment by Mr. Edison. This reinforced the established marketing program that promoted Edison phonographs as the product of the inventor’s scientific incubator. The Mood Change Test was indeed a grand experiment. 27,000 filled-out Mood Change Charts were returned to Bingham for analysis. Not only was the Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program able to gather massive amounts of data on the public’s listening practices, but the Mood Change Test also primed participants to think about music in terms of its effects. Filling out the Mood Change Chart reinforced Bingham’s mechanical understanding of music, that it caused motor and mood effects.

An analysis of the returned Mood Change Charts culminated in the publication of Mood Music: A compilation of 112 Edison Re-Creations according to what they will do for you, a short promotional booklet distributed at Edison shops. The booklet included an introduction summarizing Edison’s innovations in sound recording as well as a discussion of the Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program’s work by Bingham. Mood Music was organized around the twelve mood-effects of music. A brief description of each mood was given and then a list of ten to twelve Edison Re-Creation records, complete with their catalog number and price, to elicit this mood was offered. Sometimes a before-and-after image illustrated the motor and mood effects of a properly selected Re-Creation.[1] Readers/listeners were encouraged to “see what music can be made to do for you” (Mood Music, 10).

We can read the efforts of the Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program to be one of defining and standardizing private listening. Further, these efforts fostered in listeners—through the process of filling out the Mood Change Chart, purchasing music with the aim of “making it work for [them]”—a new understanding of the role of music as a functional one. Music could affect body and mood. A related consequence was the establishment of private, individual space as a place for self-improvement through deliberate listening to the sounds of the built environment.


Case 2: Environmental Sound Records

We might think of the sound records that proliferated — in work spaces in the 1940s and public spaces by the 1950s — in the following decades as a further reflection of the functional role of sound—in this case improvement of the mind. There was, of course, since the beginning of the consumer music industry, a significant market for educational records. I would argue, however, that the environmental sound records of the 1950s and 1960s, the bulk of which were generated by Folkways Records, were direct descendants of the early bird song records of the 1930s explicitly developed for ear-training and to further specific scientific goals.

In 1931, Arthur Allen’s ornithological laboratory at Cornell University developed a technique for recording bird vocalizations onto Movietone film. The film recordings were translated into plots of vibrational frequency over time (sonograms) as well as transferred onto phonograph records for replay. The records were used both to archive disappearing sounds of declining species and for ear training in preparation for fieldwork. As a consequence, they reinforced existing taxonomic systems (Mundy 2009) and a laboratory aesthetic of sterile sound (Bruyninckx 2011). These sound recordings were also soon distributed as accompaniments to field guides and through radio shows. They introduced listeners to never before heard sounds, a soundscape beyond their backyards, albeit one in which birds were reduced to their sound, separated from it in both time and space.

The post-war years witnessed a massive increase in environmental sound recordings. Though we might seek to divide these sounds into “natural” and “human made,” a quick perusal of the language on record jackets reveals a common language of curiosity about new sounds and desire to preserve vanishing sounds (both natural and human made). These records were not for use as sound effects for radio, theater, or television productions; they were marketed to the interested private listener. The 1952 Sounds of the Sea, Vol.1, presented never-before-heard sounds of the ocean and the animals in it recorded by the Naval Research Laboratory. The jacket breathlessly noted: “To think of fishes making noises, holding conversations, so to speak, warning each other or courting each other, as we think of birds singing to each other, is an idea which seems as strange as it well can be.” (Coates 1952, 2) There was an anthropocentrism present, both in the characterization of animal behavior and the lack of awareness of the human-made media necessary to experience these sounds at all, to transform fish sounds into human sounds. The record was also clearly the product of curiosity about this new sonic world and likely motored further interest. Subsequent records of desert animals, insects, the jungle, and more fulfilled similar roles.

Another example: The 1956 Sounds of Steam Locomotives, No.1 record was the first of several made by train enthusiast Vinton Wight in an effort to preserve the disappearing steam locomotive. Wight found that each steam engine had a specific, individual sound, what he considered to be a personality. He described the “stack music” of the locomotive as a symphony of sorts, changing tone and timbre with the weight of its load (Wight 1956, 3). The jacket included descriptions and photographs for each track, each a different locomotive. Not unlike the records produced by the Cornell ornithological laboratory, Sounds of Steam Locomotives advanced a specific taxonomy and sought to preserve disappearing sounds.

The 1964 Sounds of the Office record is a bit of a mystery. The jacket itself includes little text other than a description of the sound-generating device on each track. All but the last tracks were devoted to the isolated sound of a single office machine. The last track documented the office soundscape, with all machines running together in full cacophony. Again like the bird sound recordings, we can hear the sterile laboratory aesthetic of, say, the electric typewriter isolated from its office soundscape. Sounds of the Office likely also fulfilled a curiosity among listeners, granting them access to the sonic world of white-collar work, and perhaps also archiving such sounds for posterity.


Some Conclusions

I highlighted in the first case study the (attempted) cultivation of a listening practice by the Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program in which a listener would seek out specific sounds in the hopes of affecting his or her own body and mood. One consequence of this effort was a growing understanding of music among the public as functional, a technology that could be put to “work for you.” In the second case study, I showed through a quick gloss over a variety of environmental sound recordings a common curiosity among listeners about sonic worlds beyond their direct lived experiences and a desire to preserve the sounds of vanishing and potentially extinct sources or species.

The normalization of listening to sounds of nature in built spaces was achieved through an intersection of practices and products highlighted in these two case studies. To approach a listening experience as a means of altering ones’ current state (mind or body) allowed for openness to new sonic worlds, perhaps even a responsibility or ethical obligation to listen. The normalization of nature sounds in built spaces was aided by the simultaneous interest in human-made sounds. Novel sounds were interchangeable. Because all sounds were abstracted from their sources (times, places, organisms, machines), all were equivalent sonic curiosities, all worthy of preservation.

Additionally tucked in here—perhaps only possible because of this equivalence—was the development of another new form of listening, one that was sensitive to a vanishing sonic world. Listening to vanishing sounds somehow preserved them. Further, this new form of listening took fledgling form in the 1930s, a full three decades before the environmental movement. The ecomusicological approach to these historical developments illuminates the reciprocal and reinforcing relationship between listening and the environment. Not only did new sounds — or new recordings of old sounds — prompt new ways of listening. But shifting listening practices also informed new understandings of the environment. Tugging at these analytical threads a bit more, perhaps we can invert this normalization of nature through sound in built environments. Instead we should understand the post-war proliferation of nature sounds as the naturalization of built environments and the culmination of several decades of new listening practices and products that fueled a growing awareness of the fleetingness of sounds in nature, of nature’s increasing silence.


Part of the panel “Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits”:

  1. “An Introduction.” By Tyler Kinnear (University of British Columbia)
  2. “The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies.” By Alexandra Hui (Mississippi State University)
  3. “Sibelius Beyond Categorical Limits.” By Daniel Grimley (University of Oxford)
  4. “There’s No Place.” By James Currie (University at Buffalo)




Walter Van Dyke Bingham Collection, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, Carnegie Mellon University.

Bruyninckx, Joeri. “Sound Sterile: Making Scientific Field Recordings in Ornithology.” In The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, edited by Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, 127–150. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Coates, C. W. “Introduction and Notes.” Sounds of the Sea, Vol. 1: Underwater Sounds of Biological Origin. Folkways Records, 1952.

Hui, Alexandra. “Lost: Thomas Edison’s Mood Music Found: New Ways of Listening.” Endeavor 38 (2014): 139–142.

Jay, Martin. “In the Realm of the Senses: An Introduction.” The American Historical Review 116 (2011): 207–215.

Johnson, James. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

William Maxwell Files, Thomas Edison National Historic Park.

Mood Music: A compilation of 112 Edison Re-Creations according to what they will do for you. Thomas Edison Inc., 1921.

Mundy, Rachel. “Birdsong and the Image of Evolution.” Society and Animals 17 (2009): 206-223.

Picker, John. Victorian Soundscapes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Smith, Mark. Listening to Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Thompson, Emily. “Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925.” The Musical Quarterly 71 (1995): 131-171.

———. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.

Wight, Vinton. Liner notes to Sounds of Steam Locomotives, No.1: Stack Music Sampler; or Steam, Steel and Action. Folkways Records, 1956.



[1] Under the mood effect of “Peace of Mind,” for example, was an image of a woman collapsed on a sofa surrounded by various purchases, exhausted by a day of shopping. An inset image shows her then alert, sitting on a chair by her phonograph, “soothed and refreshed by music” (Mood Music, 12). I discuss Mood Music much more extensively in my 2014 article, “Lost: Thomas Edison’s Mood Music Found: New Ways of Listening.”

Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits: 3. Sibelius Beyond Categorical Limits

by Daniel Grimley (University of Oxford)


Figure 1: Into Konrad Inha, Lake Päijänne, Finland.

Figure 1: Into Konrad Inha, Lake Päijänne, Finland.


Categories and Borders

Addressing the issue of how one could—or should—listen beyond categorical limits presupposes the more preliminary question of where (and how) such limits are drawn and what kinds of categories they serve to demarcate, police, or enclose. As Michel Foucault’s work has shown, categories and limits themselves constitute boundaries of knowledge that shape and determine our disciplinary epistemologies, and do much more than merely organize or distribute received patterns of understanding. Foucault’s work argues for an archaeological approach to critical historical enquiry (Foucault, 2002: 151-6): an excavatory model of analysis that recalibrates our sense of agency, temporal progression, and spatial awareness. Under such a Foucauldian regime, the borderlands that separate seemingly diverse fields of enquiry, as I’ve argued elsewhere (Grimley, 2010: 394), can appear porous or impenetrable: they may be accessible to easy passage or resistant to any swift change of state or place. One of the principal challenges for a historically attuned ecomusicology in navigating such complex scholarly terrain is the ability to maintain a clear feeling for disciplinary identity that simultaneously respects the tensions and obstacles involved in such cross-disciplinary encounters. If ecomusicology emerges as a thornier, less comfortably amenable discourse as a result, the net result can only be a positive scholarly gain.

Contemplating the distance traversed in such conversations, however, prompts us to think again about the status of borderlands, whether acoustic, academic or geopolitical. As W J T Mitchell and others have argued (Selwyn, 1995; Paasi, 1996; Mitchell, 2002 [1994]), borders assume a wide variety of scales and forms: marches or buffer zones, borders serve as points of transition, transfer, migration and exile, resistance, exclusion, surveillance, violence, remembrance and erasure. Borders can similarly be geophysical, climatological, biological, political, linguistic, and auditory. Borderlands are frequently forgotten, mislaid, and neglected: they become defined as edgelands, margins, wastelands or wilderness. But if such sites are overlooked in the conventional sense, they can also be overheard in another, as sites of acute attentiveness and surveillance. Borders may be sites of deafness, blindness, amnesia and myopia. Alternatively, they can serve as thresholds or gateways, means of access that permit productive cultural and economic exchange or guarded by “peace walls” that are heavily politically freighted: one need only to pause and think about the sound either side of the razor-wire tipped fences that thread the landscape in Israel/Palestine, South Africa, or Northern Ireland to realize the significance of sound’s irresistible fluidity, its ability to seep through, slip over, and echo back in ways that challenge, channel and reshape more concrete physical topographies (Labelle, 2010).


Hearing Finland Critically: Four Modalities

Border zones operate at multiple temporal-spatial levels. Thinking about Finland ecomusicologically provides a useful case-study: as a nation-state, it has conventionally been conceived as a barrier or frontier between east and west (frequently under conditions of extreme geopolitical tension or stress). Furthermore, Finland emerged and defined itself at a crucial historical moment of transition (the early twentieth century) when ideas of landscape, place and space were radically rethought and redrawn (Häyrynen, 2008). Contemplating sound and music in Finland, especially from beyond its borders, demands a re-centered notion of periphery and edge. Far from being a marginal space, in other words, Finland more properly constitutes a political, cultural, aesthetic, and disciplinary front line: one that transcends the categorical limits of the nation and embraces a wider, more multi-tiered sense of regionality.

The remainder of this essay briefly outlines four discursive modalities of landscape as a creative, historical and discursive border zone, in order to sketch some of the categories and limits that have shaped our understanding of the relationship between music, space and place. The first modality, the monumentalization of landscape, is symbolized by Eila Hiltunen’s well-known sculpture “Credo” (1962-7), better known as the Sibelius memorial [figure 2]. Located on the edge of downtown Helsinki in carefully landscaped grounds leading from the city to the open-air museum on Seurasaari, Hiltunen’s monument was the prize-winning entry in a 1960 competition to commemorate the composer after his death in 1957. Hiltunen’s design was controversial because of its apparently abstract quality: a small bust was later added to the corner of the monument to appease popular concerns. But Hiltunen’s sculpture is striking for the way that it grounds metaphors of landscape, place, and time in Sibelius reception: the stainless steel tubes which comprise the main body of the design appear like organ pipes close up, or like a shifting wave or curtain of light (the aurora borealis) from a distance. Despite its imposing size, Hiltunen’s sculpture resists easy containment or framing; the play of light across the metallic front of the monument and sound of the wind down the hollow steel tubes animating the design even as it appears still and frozen from across the park (Grimley, 2011: 338-347).

Figure 2: Eila Hiltunen, “Credo” (1962-7), Helsinki, Finland.

Figure 2: Eila Hiltunen, “Credo” (1962-7), Helsinki, Finland.


Hiltunen’s design draws not only on the rich legacy of landscape imagery in Sibelius reception, but also from a second modality: the tradition of topographic representation in Finnish art and literature. This body of work, whose foremost exemplars include Zachris Topelius’s seminal volumes Finland framställdt i teckninger (1845-52) and Boken om Vårt Land/Maamme-Kirja (1875) and Johan Ludvig Runeberg’s travelogue, En resa i Finland (1873), was instrumental in shaping Finnish perceptions of a national topography, over and above issues of language, governance and ethnicity, at a time when debates about the status and nature of Finnish national identity came under particular pressure (Fewster, 2006). For a younger generation of topographers, working under the conditions of extreme Russian political censorship, the work of Topelius and Runeberg became a canonic source-text for symbolic representations of Finland that would otherwise have seemed dangerously inflammatory in the political regime of the Russian Grand Duchy (Häyrynen, 2008: 488-92). The haunting images recorded by Into Konrad Inha (1865-1930), a landscape photographer and conservationist who was a close friend and contemporary of Sibelius and whose colleagues included a generation of writers and artists such as Juhani Aho, Pekka Halonen, Eero Järnefelt, and Akseli Gallen-Kallela, are powerful examples of the way in which a rich lexicon of the Finnish landscape was assembled and curated. Inha’s work includes volumes entitled Suomi kuvissa (“Finland in Pictures,” 1892-6) and, with an especially delicate sense of political diplomacy, Vienan Karjalan kuvausmatka (“A Journey for Taking Pictures in Russian Karelia,” 1894); Inha’s images of agricultural workers and their routines were commissioned for the Finnish pavilion at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, celebrating (it was supposed) Finland’s emergence from an essentially agrarian backwater into a modern industrialized nation state. Yet Inha’s work is also remarkable for its concern with liminality and states of transference: his carefully staged picture of runic singers holding hands, especially the old bardic seer Miihkali Arhippainen [figure 3], alongside evocative panoramic views of privileged sites such as Lake Päijänne [figure 1] points to an underlying tension in his photographs, between the intensively detailed attention to geographic/ethnographic specificity versus the commodification of landscape for recreation, academic enquiry, and territorial domination. Similar tensions of scale, register and authority continued to strain and fracture Finnish notions of landscape, not least during the 1918 civil war and during Finland’s emergence as a key geopolitical frontier between east and western blocs post-World War II: the apparent permanence of landscape as a physical environment is in sharp opposition to its fragility as a cultural, political, and material presence in the Finnish imagination.

Figure 3: Into Konrad Inha, runic singers holding hands.

Figure 3: Into Konrad Inha, runic singers holding hands.


A third modality of landscape draws equally on Inha’s work and the shifting notions of territory and scale that emerge from his pictures: landscape as text. Hiltunen’s monument has already pointed to the ways in which the reception of Sibelius’s work has often been grounded in images of landscape and nature. Though the landscape associations of many of Sibelius’s major works have been extensively assessed, a more neglected example of this pattern of reception is one of his very last compositions, the Fünf Skizzen/Viisi Luonnosta, op. 114. The complex genesis and publication history of the work, composed after the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola, and hence contemporary with Sibelius’s work on the ultimately abortive Eighth Symphony, has been elegantly summarized by Anna Pulkkis in her critical edition of Sibelius’s piano music. First published only posthumously by Fazer in 1973, the composition may originally have been prompted by Sibelius’s American publisher Carl Fischer, who sought to capitalize on the domestic market for easy piano music: Sibelius offered the pieces to Fischer in a letter dated 15 February 1929 (National Library Collection 206.44), with the following titles: “Landscape,” “Winter-Scenery,” “The Wood Wind,” “Song in the Wood,” and “Spring Vision.” The manuscript was delivered by 23 May, but returned to Sibelius on 7 September, because of changes in copyright provision and the expected returns on new works. Sibelius subsequently offered the compositions to his German publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, and then took the scores back again to make further revisions. At this point, Sibelius added new German titles, which differ in subtle but important respects from their English equivalents: “Landschaft,” “Winterbild,” “Der Deich” [sic—“Teich” is the correct translation], “Lied im Walde,” and “Im Frühling.” The materials were later offered to the Finnish publisher R. E. Westerlund, at the end of the Second World War in 1945, who prepared copies in advance of publication (which were overseen and corrected by Sibelius), and which included newly added Finnish titles (“Maisema,” “Talvikuva,” “Metsälampi” [to which Sibelius added the Swedish “Skogstjärn”], “Metsälaulu,” and “Kevätnäky”). Sibelius, however, evidently continued to harbor doubts about the opus, and he wrote to his son-in-law Jussi Jalas on 24 February 1945 that such small pieces “are not exactly my province. It is not until I have large forms in front of me that I feel I am on my own ground” (Sibelius, 2011: xiii).

At one level, the two central numbers, “Forest Lake” (“Metsälampi”) and “Forest Song” (“Metsälaulu”), clearly belong to the generic category of Nordic nature miniature popularized by earlier works such as Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. At another level, however, they present a very different kind of landscape representation, one that is less indebted to pictorial modes of perception and which need not be heard as exclusively Finnish. Landscape here serves as a creative resource, an acoustic signal or process of abstraction. Both pieces play productively with the listener’s sense of proximity and distance, and problematize familiar notions of agency and subject position. The first number, “The Forest Lake,” for example, can be understood as the intensive acoustic study of a single modal sonority: a Dorian sound sheet assembled from stacked thirds (Murtomäki, 2004: 150-1), but with complex harmonic undertones corresponding to the dissonant upper frequencies of certain kinds of nature sounds or other unpitched noise (example 1 [score pdf]). The modal mixture in m. 14, for example, introduces a darker coloring into the music’s modal field, destabilizing the texture’s prevailing melodic contour and intervallic symmetry. The work’s double immersive waves (at mm. 19 and 37) threaten to overwhelm its registral and dynamic boundaries, puncturing the music’s otherwise repetitive ostinato figuration: the lake’s Aeolian sounds hence become a feedback “loop,” generating a series of chromatic shadows whose presence initially seems baleful but ultimately proves, in the final measures, more ambivalent or equivocal in mood and affect.

Example 1a: Sibelius, Op. 114, no. 3, mm. 1-22.

Example 1a: Sibelius, Op. 114, no. 3, mm. 1-22.

Example 1b: Sibelius, Op. 114, no. 3, mm. 23-46.

Example 1b: Sibelius, Op. 114, no. 3, mm. 23-46.


In the second number, “Forest Song,” the idea of singing is en/invoiced texturally within the middle (tenor) tessitura of the instrument. But the question of precisely whose song is performed within the work remains unclear. Harmonically, the music’s tension is generated between the predominantly octatonic content of the right hand (collection II), the Lydian-Dorian modal inflection of the inner parts, and the incursion of complementary octatonic materials (collection III, mm. 18-25ff). Though a brief moment of clearer melodic articulation at the mezza voce (m. 33) suggests a heightened sense of agency the music deflects any sustained attempt at linguistic meaning or signification (example 2 [score pdf]). “Forest Song” offers no straightforward formal or expressive synthesis but rather a rupture or aporia in the “nature scene:” the enharmonic e#/f♮ in m. 42 that acts as a formal pivot, heralding a return of the opening octatonic ostinato. “Forest Song” thus threatens or dismantles the stable boundaries between nature, culture, listening subject, and creative agency, even as it folds its idea of landscape back within the echoing fragments of its ostinato figure within its closing bars.

Example 2a: Sibelius, Op. 114, no. 4, mm. 1-37.

Example 2a: Sibelius, Op. 114, no. 4, mm. 1-37.

Example 2b: Sibelius, Op. 114, no. 4, mm. 38-72.

Example 2b: Sibelius, Op. 114, no. 4, mm. 38-72.


This close reading of Sibelius’s op. 114 invites comparison with a fourth modality of landscape, landscape as cartography, represented by Johannes Gabriel Granö’s ground-breaking Pure Geography (Puhdas Maantiede/Reine Geographie, 1929). First published in German, and then in Finnish 2 years later, Granö’s work proposes a systematic haptic geography of landscape perception. The volume’s aim, Granö explains in the preface, “is to demonstrate that the topic of geographical research is the human environment, understood as the whole complex of phenomena and objects that can be perceived by the senses.” [p. 1, my emphasis] From this threshold, the volume proposes a threefold hierarchical model of geographical perception, comprising:

  1. the observable space or field of vision/hearing: landscape as prospect or spectacle;
  1. aspects of heat, humidity, pressure, sound, smell: the haptic medium of landscape; and
  1. the base, substrate or fundamental tone of landscape.

Granö draws his preoccupation with the “field of hearing” from a further contemporary source: Jussi Seppä’s Luonnon löytöjä. Lintunäkymiä ja –kuulumia (“Findings in Nature: Ornithological Sights and Sounds” [Porvoo: WSOY, 1928]), the first book in Finland to employ the term and one that was especially concerned with the sonic and spatial qualities of particular landscapes construed less on a national but rather at a (micro)regional level.

This close attention to the intricate sonic detail of landscape provides the basis for Granö’s auditory analysis of Valosaari, an island in the south-eastern Finnish lake district: one of the earliest published soundscape studies in the field. As Granö explains, “the common auditory phenomena characterising natural proximities include the roar of the waves, cascades, or rapids, the sough of the wind in the forest and the singing of birds, while the ‘field of hearing’ of artificial proximities is characterized by human voices and the noise of traffic and industry” (Granö, 1997: 126). Beyond the familiar distinction between natural and artificial noise, however, lies a more fine-grained concern with questions of proximity and distance: the way in which sound leaks, is transformed, or refracted by physical objects within the landscape; the intensity or duration of particular sounds heard from precise locations within the auditory field; and the seasonal shifts in tone and register: “sounds produced by people always in summer; produced by people sometimes in summer; produced by people frequently at all times of the year (boating route, ice road)” (Ibid: 127).

Granö’s analysis might be read superficially as an attempt to capture the acoustic quality of a particular place in scientific, rational fashion. But his work more properly belongs to a complex tradition of landscape representation in which sound plays a more destabilizing role. The legacy of Granö’s model, and the four modalities of landscape as border zone outlined in this essay, can be traced in more contemporary research, for example the work of the Finnish sound artist Simo Alitalo, based in Turku in south-western Finland, who has been involved with the ongoing Finnish sound-mapping project ( Like Granö, Alitalo substitutes the conventional Finnish term for soundscape “äänimaisema” (literally meaning a “landscape of sound”) with a cognate term “kuuluma,” stressing the act of audition or hearing: a critical turn consistent with Tim Ingold’s recent polemic against the idea of soundscape (Ingold, 2006) and one adopted by other Finnish acoustic ecologists such as Heikki Uimonen.


In attending more closely to the media through which sound and landscape are shaped and formed, in light of writing on sound and landscape from Granö to the present day, and cogniscent of the cultural and political work performed by landscape as it is embedded within the historiographies of Finnish music, we are encouraged to reflect critically upon the ontological nature and status of the borders, liminalities, and thresholds of sound. Through this process, we can gain a clearer sense of the epistemological status of landscape, sound, immersion, and the politics of representation: categories that provoke more difficult questions about subjectivity and agency within a (post)affective critical regime. This renewed attention to landscape within ecomusicology might serve as a sign of musicology’s seemingly perennial lateness—its delayed concern with pressing aesthetic, historic and scholarly issues with which other disciplines appear to have engaged many years earlier. But, in asking us to listen beyond our categorical limits, as with the case of Sibelius’s landscapes, musicology can cautiously clear fresh critical ground. Contemplating these questions at such a politically uncertain time feels like a good place to start


Part of the panel “Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits”:

  1. “An Introduction.” By Tyler Kinnear (University of British Columbia)
  2. “The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies.” By Alexandra Hui (Mississippi State University)
  3. “Sibelius Beyond Categorical Limits.” By Daniel Grimley (University of Oxford)
  4. “There’s No Place.” By James Currie (University at Buffalo)




Alitalo, Simo. Kuulumia. (accessed 3 February 2014).

Fewster, Derek. Visions of Past Glory: Nationalism and the Construction of Early Finnish History. Studia Fennica Historica 11. (Helsinki: SKS, 2006).

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. (London: Routledge, 2002). Originally published as L’Archéologie du Savoir (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1969) 151-6.

Granö, Johannes Gabriel. Pure Geography, trans Malcolm Hicks, ed. Olavi Granö and Anssi Paasi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). Originally published as Reine Geographie (Helsinki: Geographical Society of Finland, 1929).

Grimley, Daniel M. ‘Music, Landscape, Attunement: Listening to Sibelius’s Tapiola’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 64/2 (Fall, 2010), 394-8.

———. Jean Sibelius and his World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

Hirsch, Eric. ‘Landscape: Between Space and Place’, in The Anthropology of Landscape: Perspectives on Place and Space, ed. Eric Hirsch and Michael O’Hanlon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 1-30.

Häyrynen, Maunu. ‘A Kaleidoscopic Nation: the Finnish National Landscape Imagery’, in Michael Jones and Kenneth Olwig (eds.) Nordic Landscapes: Region and Belonging on the Northern Edge of Europe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 483-510.

Ingold, Timothy. ‘Against Soundscape’, in Autumn Leaves: Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice, ed. Angus Carlyle (Paris: Double Entendre, 2007), 10-13.

Labelle, Brandon. Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (London: Continuum, 2010).

Mitchell, W. J. T. ‘Holy Landscape: Israel, Palestine, and the American Wilderness’ in Landscape and Power, ed. W J T Mitchell, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 261-290.

Murtomäki, Veijo. ‘Sibelius and the Miniature’ in Daniel M. Grimley (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 137-153.

Mäkelä, Tomi. Jean Sibelius, trans. Stephen Lindberg (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011) 84-88.

Paasi, Anssi. Territories, Boundaries and Consciousness: the Changing Geographies of the Finnish Russian Border (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 1996).

———. ‘Finnish Landscape as Social Practice: Mapping Identity and Scale’, in Jones and Olwig (eds.) Nordic Landscapes, 511-539.

Selwyn, Tom. ‘Landscapes of Liberation and Imprisonment: Towards an Anthropology of the Israeli Landscape’, in Hirsch and O’Hanlon (eds.) The Anthropology of Landscape, 114-134.

Seppä, Jussi. Luonnon löytöjä. Lintunäkymiä ja –kuulumia (‘Findings in Nature: Ornithological Sights and Sounds’) (Porvoo: WSOY, 1928)

Sibelius, Jean. Works for Piano, Opp. 85, 94, 96a, 96c, 97, 99, 101, 103, 114. Jean Sibelius Works V/3, ed. Anna Pulkkis (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 2011)

Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits: 4. There’s No Place


by James Currie (University at Buffalo)


The attraction that is exerted by ecocriticism arises through the force with which it invokes pressing aspects of the real.   Even though the total scholarly field of such study is not singularly concerned with the indisputable fact of environmental catastrophe in the anthropocene, such horrors constantly make their presence felt, creating an almost guaranteed aura of relevance that can rarely be expected by other pursuits within the humanities. What, after all, could be more pressing than turning the gaze of our objects of study to face the fact of the destruction of an environment fit for human habitation? Surely we should not shy away from acknowledging the shudder that passes across the visage of art when she is made to interrupt her self-involvements and confront the devastations without! In Anglo-American public life, where intellectual pursuits are so easily deemed risible, scholars faced with the question as to what point there is to academic work frequently find themselves at sea, muttering convoluted excuses as they tread water to delay the moment when they start to drown. But the ecocritic reaches dry land quickly and thus has more breath left for effective rhetoric; the clear focus generated by seemingly direct engagement with the dangers of our time allows her to find her place within the presently existing scheme of things with prompt efficiency. We know where she is. Other lines of inquiry, by contrast, easily seem a little mandarin—inscrutably performed in the shadows of a decadent realm of dreams, artifice rather than reality.

I am pushing this representation of ecocriticism towards the doorway of parody, for exaggeration can sometimes give us a vantage on proclivities that day-to-day professional life too easily masks. Exaggeration here is thus more knowledge than entertainment. If ecocriticism more immediately forms lasting relationships with the real constituted by the environment where then does that leave the products of human artifice born from the imagination? Are such things divorced from reality? Does the ecocritic thereby act as a kind of marriage guidance councilor between nature and culture, convincing art to know her place and to come back home? Are things now, in fact, surreptitiously gendered so? Is ecocriticism a little too straight? If so, what would happen if we performed an almost hackneyed conventional move of queer studies, and assert artifice over nature? What would be gained from setting up our home in fabrication, in that “somewhere” where for queers there has sometimes been “a place for us”? And since I am improvising here, what if that “somewhere” were a song? To riff further—a song that is one of the most densely populated of queer places, “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” from the 1939 MGM classic, The Wizard of Oz?

In the first part of the film, this iconic song

caters nicely to my questions, since Dorothy, weighted down by the restrictions of her immediate world, sings the tune in the name of imaginative escape. The song offers her momentary respite from reality, a respite that will then find a more full, complex elaboration in the land of Oz itself.[1] Here the song is queer. But at the end of the film, the song

is under contract to bring Dorothy home from her time in exile. So it is now an ecocritic—or at least according to the terms of my parody. The time has come to get back to business, to wake up from the defamiliarizations of dream life—where old friends appear as machines, or animals, or stuffed like a doll with straw—and once more to put things in their proper place and learn to make of that the dream that had inspired us to run away in the first place. We must know where we are.

Reminding ourselves of the ending of the film, however, suggests that such a reading is a little too neat. Dorothy wants to return to Kansas, and the Wizard has offered to chauffer her himself in a hot air balloon, since it turns out (oddly) that he is from Kansas too. The people of the Emerald City gather. Before them, the Wizard transfers his powers and authority onto the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion. But at this moment of departure, Toto the dog sees a cat, a rather acid Siamese with ice blue eyes, a being seemingly devoid of sentiment. Oddly mirroring Toto in relation to Dorothy, the cat is nestling in the arms of a young woman. But the visual repetition is uncanny, for the cat’s porter, briefly glanced at by the camera, is no other than Dorothy’s sinister Doppelgänger, whose gaze is as malevolent as that of her feline familiar.[2] In the binary logics of Oz, all good witches come shadowed by their moral negatives; no sooner has Glinda the Good Witch of the North floated down in her pink soap bubble, than the Wicked Witch of the West churns up out of the ground in an orange column of fumes. Since Dorothy herself was assumed to be a witch upon her initial arrival in Oz, she is as subject to this formal law as anyone else, however much she may have initially protested against such identification: “I’m not a witch at all. I’m Dorothy Gale from Kansas!”[3] And so at the moment when she is just about to escape and return back to the comforts of Kansas, to a place where distorted reflections are unknown and people only come in ones, her payment is due and for the only time in the film (literally for a second[4]) we are allowed to witness something Other than the wholesome image of innocence and good that Dorothy sustains so successfully throughout the rest of her odyssey. Toto, seemingly asserting animal instincts over Dorothy’s conscious human desires, darts off to fight the good fight against the evil cat, and Dorothy, asserting her instinctual love of animals over her own purported agenda, joins the chase and so misses her ride home. In Oz there is perhaps no free lunch, and Dorothy’s fidelity to her affections here comes, on the cusp of the film’s conclusion, with an accompanying sacrifice that recapitulates the behavioral pattern that got her into all this trouble in the first place.[5] But perhaps, as this essay suggests, God writes in crooked lines, through the excited scamper of a small dog, and so Toto’s indifference to Dorothy’s plans is inadvertently but the manner of their attempted realization.

Dorothy’s distress at having missed her one opportunity to get home is cut short by Glinda’s return and pronouncement: “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.” That power, however, could only be accessed once a lesson had been learnt, a lesson that Dorothy then proffers: “It wasn’t enough to want to see Uncle Henry and Aunty Em.” Rather, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again”—which, we should remember, was the desire to save an animal!—“I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”[6] The film does not extend far enough into the future for us to see if the era of Toto’s agency within Dorothy’s heart has now been eclipsed by a prioritization of the human over the animal. Glinda merely confirms that Dorothy’s rendition is correct and begins teaching her the art of her final journey: “close your eyes, and tap your heals together three times, and think to yourself, ‘there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…’” At the third rendition Dorothy joins in, thus kick starting the engine of her final descent.[7]

Repetition can open up access to zones from which we are otherwise barred. This is why psychotherapy has at times employed the technique in the form of hypnosis. Keeping this in mind, we might therefore ask why it is then that Glinda deems it necessary to hypnotize Dorothy through repetition of the phrase “there’s no place like home.” In the scene of psychotherapy, we are hypnotized because it is only through this magic repetition trick that we can be transported to the Other scenes of our truth. Hypnosis distracts us into confronting something that otherwise we would do every thing we could to avoid; in his early treatment of neurotics, Freud used the technique as a means of helping his patients overcome their amnesia, so they could re-confront events otherwise too disturbing to remember. This being the case, we might therefore be forgiven for assuming that Dorothy, in fact, does not want to go home. Why, otherwise, would hypnosis be at all necessary? And so why does she not want to go back—to the place of her family, to her friends, to a community tied together through the fact that it is tethered to agrarian culture and thus tethered to the ground? Surely such a place would be desirable to her, comforting, and in all sorts of ways, both literal and figurative, grounding. After all, Dorothy has just been thrown up into the air, into what we might easily think of as a thrilling and terrifying taste of modernity at its most mad. Oz is a world in which, to pilfer Marx’s famous phrase, “all that is solid melts into air.”[8] Indeed, this is the fate of the wicked witch, and it occurs merely as a result of her having an encounter with a bucket of water. It is disturbing that a force so terrifying can be erased by so seemingly meaningless a detail; it bespeaks, alarmingly, of a defining instability at the heart of Oz. And so once more: why on earth is the prosthesis of hypnosis necessary in order to propel Dorothy back to earth—towards being grounded, towards being back in place?

As minimalism teaches us, repetition can make us hear things differently; it can disturb us by making meanings proliferate with alarming ease. At this moment in the film, what Dorothy says is as shop-worn as it gets: the tired sampler wisdom of “there’s no place like home,” to the gentle background accompaniment of the 1823 tune by Henry Bishop. The well-known tune, which Judy Garland was then famously to sing in full later in the 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis, subtly displaces the currently playing background music, which is made up out of a soft-focus texture of leitmotivs drawn primarily from the movie’s most famous hit, “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” The conflation of “There’s no place like home” with “Somewhere over the Rainbow” draws attention to a dialectical contradiction that is characteristic of the film in general: at this moment, the identity of a place, sublimely located over the rainbow, turns out to be the place where one already is: i.e., at home. Infinite distance short circuits with the immediate location. There is a slightly mad superimposing of universal and particular that, once one starts to get close to it, unravels in a strangely fecund plurality of directions.

For example, if the immediate place constituted by home is also sublime (beyond the rainbow) then we might start to hear a certain Utopian strain in “there’s no place like home.” As is oft noted, utopia quite literally means “no place.” And so we could rephrase the mantra as follows: There is a no place, a utopia, and that utopia is home.  But we might also hear something more sinister starting to loom from out of the repetitions, something to the effect of a denial: “there is no place like home”—in other words, there is no such place, because such a home does not exist, it is a fantasy. If the background music at this point helps to keep a conflation of particular with universal in place, allowing us to believe that home is sublime, then Dorothy’s spoken mantra, by contrast, could now be heard as a piece of pragmatic realist sobering up, an attempt, figuratively speaking, to bring us back down to earth, and thus a means of curtailing our flights of fancy. As if to spell the point out, we see the house at this moment swirling back down to earth from out of the great heights into which it had been initially thrown by the cyclone. However, the fact that Dorothy nevertheless keeps banging on about the fact that “there’s no place like home” even once she has “woken up” from her concussion and, moreover, that the final “The End” returns us to the sublime by means of a Romantically-tinged skyscape, suggest that perhaps she is still not yet ready to accept the full repercussions attendant upon her new realist manifesto. She is back in her place, but she cannot properly place herself there, and we should ask: why not? What is wrong with her relationship to place?

According to the French anthropologist Marc Augé, the intense and traumatic state of interconnection created by our late stage of global capital means that all places are now as much sites of infinite dispersal as they are places that can conceivably cohere into an identifiable place in the anthropological sense: as somewhere where a culture and its practices can be localized in time and space. For Augé we inhabit a paradoxical condition whereby the places constituted by particular locales are immediately connected with universal forces, but without that creating a broader sense of belonging. As he writes: “never before have individuals been so explicitly affected by collective history, but never before, either, have the reference points for collective identification been so unstable.”[9] I would argue, that one could effectively apply this formulation to the notion of place, too. Within the socio-political we are, to a certain degree, increasingly forced to inhabit the universal, but our habitation cannot constitute a home, and so we are, to all extents and purposes, without place. Faced with the anxieties of this radical displacement, the symptom that emerges is an intense over-determination of the value of the locality and place. Again, as Auge writes: “at the very same moment when it becomes possible to think in terms of the unity of terrestrial space, and the big multinational networks grow strong, the clamor of particularisms rises; clamor from those who want to stay at home in peace, clamor from those who want to find a mother country. As if the conservatism of the former and the messianism of the latter were condemned to speak the same language: that of the land and roots.”[10] In a sense, “There’s no place like home” is the anthem of this condition of overdetermined particularism. And it is given such incredible force in our present ecological condition, because of the irrefutable relationship between the growing strength of “big multinational networks” and the destruction of the “land” itself—the literal fact that the increasing toxicity of the planet and soil means that “roots” cannot flourish, so that even plants cannot be placed.

The connections between the flow of capital, the destruction of the environment, and the resultant destruction of place is prophetically waiting to be made in The Wizard of Oz, but not yet fully manifest. It is more a boil on the cusp of bursting. Evidently, since this is a film from the 1930s, the time of the Dust Bowl and the great depression, real-life and man-made natural disasters pervade the peripheries of the framing Kansas scenes of the film. The combination of intense droughts and ill-considered farming practices (basically a failure to employ dryland methods that help to lessen the possibility of wind-erosion) had by the mid-1930s decimated many farming families in the Great Plains, with the result that many of them were eventually forced to abandon their homes and leave, thus creating one of the largest forces of migration in US history, the famous Oakie migration. In the film, Dorothy’s own displacement, both her decision to leave home and her eventual transportation away from home by the twister, creates an interesting sequence, which, as I say, does not quite fully allow the political-economic-environmental networks at play in the realities of the 1930s to be spelled out, but which nevertheless remain implicit. She has had an encounter with money’s power over land and its decimating effects on the people who work it: Elmira Dultch, we should remember, is able to wield power over decisions to have Dorothy’s dog removed because she owns half the county. Dorothy’s response to this dissonance that interrupts her consonant relationship to her place is musical: she takes solace in dreaming her own displacement into another place (“somewhere”) via taking up temporary residence in the oddly displaced location offered by musical performance: she sings the famous “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”

This can alert us to the following temporary conclusion about music in a time of ecological disaster: when one’s place is threatened with destruction, one of the places that one can take up residence is in the oddly displaced place that is musical performance itself.[11] Or: if we take seriously the heft of the real created by the environmental disaster, we must acknowledge the import that artifice will increasingly hold for our world. For not only is artifice the realm of art (a solace), it is also the realm of the self-consciously made (of action). And since, like Dorothy, we can no longer in good conscience take easy comfort in the sentimentally tinged notion that we might still return home to a balanced sense of belonging to the earth, we need to start waking up to the reality of whatever artifice we might effectively make of our future and learn to live in full Technicolor in Oz.


Part of the panel “Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits”:

  1. “An Introduction.” By Tyler Kinnear (University of British Columbia)
  2. “The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies.” By Alexandra Hui (Mississippi State University)
  3. “Sibelius Beyond Categorical Limits.” By Daniel Grimley (University of Oxford)
  4. “There’s No Place.” By James Currie (University at Buffalo)




[1] In the iconic moment when Dorothy opens the door on Oz after her house has landed, thus flooding her quotidian sepia world with the healing rays of Technicolor, the tune is playing as part of the background instrumental soundscape. A few moments later, after her famously funny observation to Toto, that “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” the musical cue is given linguistic validation and Dorothy exclaims: “We must be somewhere over the rainbow!” Victor Flemming, The Wizard of Oz, 75th Anniversary Edition (Warner Home Video, 2013), track 11.

[2] Although I have not been able to verify this fact, the actress holding the cat is seemingly no other than Judy Garland. Flemming, The Wizard of Oz, chapter 51.

[3] Flemming, The Wizard of Oz, chapter 11.

[4] The exact point in the film (occurring in chapter 51) is 1 34’ 52”.

[5] In the opening Kansas sequence, Dorothy abandons her home rather than lose Toto, and as a result is unable then properly to get back home to her family and friends when the twister arrives.

[6] Flemming, The Wizard of Oz, chapter 52.

[7] Ibid., chapter 53.

[8] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 476.

[9] Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity (London and New York: Verso, 1995), 30.

[10] Ibid., 28.

[11] As Holly Watkins writes: “Music of all sorts takes place in place, so to speak, and it also takes part in place. But music also is a place of sorts.” “Musical Ecologies of Place and Placelessness,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 64/ii (2011), 405.